Monday, July 11, 2011

Roland Petit, Choreographer, Dies at 87

Zizi Jeanmaire and Roland Petit in Carmen

The New York Times
July 10, 2011

Roland Petit, Choreographer, Dies at 87; Conquered Ballet Taboos and Hollywood

Roland Petit, France’s leading choreographer after World War II, who swept away time-honored ballet taboos and whose mix of entertainment and art also made his work popular in Hollywood, died Sunday in Geneva. He was 87 and had lived in Switzerland for more than a decade.

His death was reported by his wife, the ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire, the Paris Opera Ballet said.

Although Mr. Petit choreographed cheerful films like “Hans Christian Andersen” with Danny Kaye, sex and suffering were the themes of the two early ballets that became his international signature pieces: “Carmen” and “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort.”

Mr. Petit stunned dance and theater audiences in London in New York in 1949 with a frank new eroticism in his ballet version of “Carmen.” Renée (later Zizi) Jeanmaire was the femme fatale in a short tunic and a gamine hairdo who seduced Mr. Petit, as Don José, in an acrobatic duet on the floor. The headline of the positive review by The New York Herald Tribune’s dance critic, Walter Terry, read “Sex and More Sex.”

John Martin, the critic for The New York Times, was less impressed. “Passion and the classical pas de deux are poles apart,” he wrote.

“Carmen” might have been directly accessible in its stylized realism. But Mr. Petit, a dancer as well as a choreographer, displayed a deeper side in his 1946 masterpiece, “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” (“The Young Man and Death”). Here, he showed the resonant poetic dimension seen in the pieces in which he collaborated with some of France’s major writers, poets, composers and visual artists.

For “Le Jeune Homme,” Jean Cocteau devised a scenario about a bohemian painter in his garret, ostensibly waiting for his sweetheart but eventually embroiled in an existential battle for survival. Jean Babilée, that ballet’s unforgettable star (who also contributed some of the choreography), smoked a real cigarette onstage on a real bed, looked at his real watch and kicked real furniture around before engaging in a violent confrontation with his girlfriend.

The painter hanged himself in despair and his lover revealed herself as an allegorical figure of death before leading the antihero across a surreal rooftop panorama of Paris. Cocteau’s typical touch of the mythic made commonplace fused wonderfully with Petit’s naturalism (as opposed to realism) and use of ballet bravura.

A metaphor for postwar disillusion, the ballet struck a nerve in Europe but also impressed in New York when Ballet Theater presented it in 1951, with Mr. Babilée and Nathalie Philippart.

But it was also an experimental, conceptual work. After the cast had rehearsed it only to jazz, Cocteau suddenly substituted Bach’s Passacaglia for the performances.

Working within two extremes, as represented by the show-business-flavored "Carmen" and the poetic “Jeune Homme,” Mr. Petit remained a subject for debate throughout more than a half-century, in which he choreographed some 150 ballets.

American critics often called him chic. Even French critics began to find him superficial. Yet after he turned to creating ballets based on opera and literature, he could surprise.

In New York in 1980, the National Ballet of Marseille (headed by Mr. Petit since 1972), presented Mr. Petit’s eloquent commentary on Marcel Proust and his work in “Marcel Proust Remembered.” Ms. Jeanmaire carried his ballet version of “Fledermaus” in “The Bat.” His updated view of “Coppélia” had a witty if kinky approach: as Coppélius, he waltzed with a female dummy (the doll Coppélia) strapped to his body.

Karen Kain, now artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, was a guest artist in this “Coppélia.” Among the many ballet stars for whom he choreographed were Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Maya Plisetskaya, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. Both Mr. Baryshnikov and Mr. Nureyev danced in “Jeune Homme” shortly after they left the Soviet Union for the West.

Mr. Petit also developed the talents of two future stars. When he co-founded Les Ballets des Champs-Élysées, he engaged two teenage dancers, Leslie Caron and Violette Verdy.

Roland Petit was born on Jan. 13, 1924, in Villemomble, near Paris. His father, Edmond Petit, had a restaurant in the Halles district; his mother founded the dancewear company Repetto. Fond of dancing to a player piano in the restaurant, the young Roland was enrolled in the Paris Opera Ballet School at 9 and joined the company’s corps at 16.

Chafing at the company’s restrictions, he left to choreograph in a series organized by the critic Irene Lidova. These performances led Mr. Petit and Lidova to found Les Ballets des Champs-Élysées with Boris Kochno, Serge Diaghilev’s collaborator and secretary.

Mr. Petit left in 1947 to form his own company, Les Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit. Wooed by Hollywood, he choreographed “Hans Christian Andersen” in 1951 before marrying Ms. Jeanmaire, who survives him, as does their daughter, Valentine Petit. Among the other films he choreographed were “Daddy Long Legs” (1955) “The Glass Slipper” (1955) and “Anything Goes” (1956).

Mr. Petit returned to Paris to choreograph for ballets and music hall revues (some starring his wife). He briefly served as director of the Paris Opera Ballet but resigned after a dispute and later moved to Marseille, where he was director until he left in 1998, reportedly in a disagreement with the management.

Like Maurice Béjart, Mr. Petit sought to reach a wide audience. Yet he had a more solid choreographic foundation, and his early ballets work on an artistic level still valid today.

Ms. Lidova once admitted that Mr. Petit could fall into a “Champagne style.” But she also noted, rightly, that he was an artist of contrasts, “who can be both frivolous and serious, passionate and cruel.”

Personal comment: I first remember seeing Roland Petit in a video of the 1960 film Black Tights with Moira Shearer, Zizi Jeanmaire and Cyd Charisse. Black Tights as well as The Red Shoes were the two films that reinforced my desire to be a ballet dancer.

1 comment:

  1. Well thats sad he was a good artist, he made not only classic pieces but some of the most passionate dance scenes I ever saw on film, some even make my jaw drop to the ground at how sensual yet classy the dances he made are with Zizi Jeanmarie.

    well we all have to go some time

    anon jj


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I'm a classically trained dancer and SAB grad. A Dance Captain and go-to girl overseeing high-roller entertainment for a major casino/resort