Two enduring loves span the life of French choreographer Roland Petit, who died yesterday at the age of 87: one was dance, the other was a dancer, Renée (“Zizi”) Jeanmaire. He encountered them both at the age of nine, when he entered the Paris Opera Ballet School in 1933; Jeanmaire, also nine, was a student there.
Petit joined the Paris Opera Ballet at the age of 16, but found the company “musty” and left in 1944. The rest of the decade was decisive for him. In 1945, just 21 years old, he formed Les Ballets des Champs-Elysées with Boris Kochno – the former secretary and artistic associate of Serge Diaghilev – and created some of the works for which he is still remembered today, including Les Forains (1945) and especially Le Jeune Homme et La Mort (1946), a piece of postwar existential angst with a libretto by Jean Cocteau about a suicidal artist and the fatally beautiful woman who is both love and death. First performed by the exceptional dancer Jean Babilée, it was Petit’s first international hit, and later danced by both Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Nureyev and Jeanmaire in Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, 1966
The company’s 1946 visit to London caused a sensation, and was a moment of inspiration for such lifelong dance critics as Clement Crisp and Clive Barnes (who remembers the revelation of seeing the chic, bracing French company sandwiched between “two helpings of well-meaning British stodge”). Britain’s foremost ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, went to France in 1948 to perform with Petit’s newly founded company Les Ballets de Paris, and they had a brief but romantic affair. (In Paris, they swam naked across the Seine, and later, when his company was stranded in London, she secretly paid for their return home; he, meanwhile, persuaded her to have a nose job). But the liaison ended and Petit stayed with his first love, Jeanmaire (they married in 1954). “It was because of [the Fonteyn affair],” recalled Jeanmaire later, “that afterwards I told him: ‘We go to London, and I want a big creation for me. Otherwise, I will leave.'”
That creation turned out to be Petit’s biggest success, Carmen (1949), which introduced a new kind of ballet heroine. In Carmen, Jeanmaire was fierce, sexual, wilful – hair cropped boyishly close, hips jutting, legs lengthened by the shortness of her tunic – and Petit’s choreography was charged with eroticised combat. Its London premiere caused an even bigger sensation than Petit’s first visit, audiences finding it thrillingly risqué. You can see in this later recording of Petit and Jeanmaire why British choreographer Frederick Ashton, fresh from staging The Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Ballet, worried he might be out of date.
Despite his reception, Petit was rarely invited to Britain again. He was, perhaps, too un-British. In any case, worldwide success beckoned. Invited to America, he worked on several musical films in the 1950s, including Hans Christian Andersen (1952), Anything Goes (1955) – both featuring Jeanmaire – and also on Daddy Long Legs and The Glass Slipper, both from 1955 and featuring another chic, gamine French dancer, Leslie Caron, who had danced with Petit in Les Ballets des Champs-Elysées.
Influenced by the Hollywood musical, on his return to France Petit began to choreograph in commercial theatre alongside his work on the ballet stage, melding ballet, jazz and popular song, American pizzazz with French chic and sophistry. He showcased Jeanmaire’s stockinged pins and insouciant charm in shows such as La Revue (1961), with its famous Mon Truc en Plumes number.
Petit continued to span high and popular culture. On one hand, he created ballets for his own and other international companies, and was briefly director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1970. On the other, he staged revues, and in 1970 bought the Casino de Paris. (“We’re theatre people,” he explained to Time magazine, “so instead of hunting up an ordinary gift, I decided to offer my wife the Casino de Paris.”) There, he produced classy cabarets with costumes by the likes of Erté and Yves Saint Laurent, and music by Michel Legrand, Serge Gainsbourg and others – and with Zizi, as ever, the star attraction.
The Casino de Paris venture didn’t break even, and closed in 1975. But by 1972, Petit was already heading the Ballet de Marseille – again mixing avant-garde experiment, classical choreography and commercial nous, for example with his 1972 Pink Floyd Ballet, a spaced-out hybrid between a ballet and a live rock concert, featuring the Floyd themselves.
Pink Floyd Ballet, plus interviews with Petit and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour (in French)
Petit remained with Ballet de Marseille until 1998, creating numerous ballets including Ma Pavlova (1986), Le Guépard (1995) and Le Lac des Cygnes et Ses Maléfices (1998, a Swan Lake with male swans), as well as making works for other companies such as the Paris Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and special vehicles for star dancers such as Maya Plisetskaya (La Rose Malade, 1973) and Natalia Makarova (The Blue Angel, 1985).
After Marseille, Petit moved to Geneva, but continued to create and restage works across the world – Europe, America, Russia, Japan, China – until the end of his life. Even Britain, which has seen scarcely any of his works for decades, is finally to see an all-Petit programme, presented by English National Ballet later this month at the London Coliseum – just too late, it now turns out, to welcome him back to the city where he first met international success.