Born in Rustenburg, South Africa, in 1927, John Cranko studied dance at the Cape Town University Ballet School. In 1945, he also choreographed his first work there, a piece to Stravinsky's suite from The Soldier's Tale. This was closely followed by his first real success, Tritsch-Tratsch, set to Strauss's famous polka of the same name. The same year, he moved to London to continue his studies at the Sadler's Wells School and joined Sadler's Wells Ballet (subsequently The Royal Ballet) soon after.
Cranko immediately began to make a name for himself with a string of successful works including Children's Corner (1947), Sea Changes and Beauty and the Beast (1949), Pineapple Poll (1951), Bonne-Bouche (1952), and The Lady and the Fool (1954). In 1950, at the age of 23, he gave up dancing all together to concentrate on choreography. He did not create his first full-length ballet until 1957, when he choreographed Benjamin Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas for The Royal Ballet. He followed this with his famous production of Romeo and Juliet, created for La Scala, Milan, the following year.
In 1961, Cranko was asked by Walter Erich Schaefer, the General Director of the Wuerttemberg State Theatre, to become Director of the Stuttgart Ballet. He had experienced recent failures in London (of his ballet Antigone in 1960) and a musical called Keep Your Hair On, and he accepted the post which he was to hold until his death. He spent the next decade turning this small provincial company into a world-class ballet company. He continued to choreograph for Stuttgart Ballet and his works there included The Catalyst (1961), L'estro armonico (1963), Jeu de cartes and Onegin (1965), The Nutcracker (1966), Quatre images (1967-68), The Taming of the Shrew (1969), Brouillards and Poème de l'extase (1970), Carmen (1971) and Traces (1973). Cranko died of a heart attack in 1973 at the tragically early age of 45, whilst on a plane returning from a tour of America.