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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 1 APRIL 2008-"Last time the Bolshoi came here, I was very surprised when they sang "Happy Birthday" to me. Then I remembered it was January 13th, and it was indeed my 60th birthday. Only a few seconds later, I realized that it wasn't my 60th at all, but my 80th!"

So spoke that Grand "Old" Man of French ballet, Roland Petit, who will probably go down in dance annals as the most important French choreographer of the 20th century, as he strolled around a magnificent exhibition at the Palais Garnier, the first of its kind, commemorating his career which began there on his ninth birthday, 75 years ago. Tall, attractive and imposing, the years have dealt kindly with the man who, in the mid-forties, grouped some of the most gifted writers, painters, musicians and dancers around him, and brought about a renaissance in French ballet. Such masterpieces as Le Loup, Les Forains, Carmen and Jeune Homme et la Mort remain unequalled to this day for their superlative costumes and decors. Dancer and showman, Petit has been equally as happy staging revues within the music halls and providing the choreography for several Hollywood musicals including Daddy Long Legs, Anything Goes, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Roland Petit: Carmen
Photographie de scène: Palais Garnier, 2005
Photo: Christian Leiber/ Opéra national de Paris

The highly theatrical display in the "Bibliotheque-Musée" and public areas of the theatre of photographs, small-scale models of costumes and scenery of all the people he worked with, as well as 35 costumes including the original of Esmeralda from Notre Dame de Paris, illustrates the scope of his extraordinary career. Springing from a more modest selection of Petit's own collection of photographs shown at the Museum of Geneva recently, the current exhibition, more grandiose and covering his lifetime, allows you to actually meet his work.

Roland Petit was a pupil at the Paris Opera Ballet School from 1934 to 1940 after which he joined the company for four years before leaving to concentrate on his choreography and founding the "Ballets des Champs Elysées" with Boris Kochno and Christian Bérard where he was also the star dancer. As this exhibition demonstrates, all his life Petit was to surround himself with exceptionally gifted people, beginning with his wife and inspiration, Renée (Zizi) Jeanmaire, his lifelong companion, "the muse of my heart", he confided, whom he met during his studies at the Opera school.

Stopping in front of a fabulous photograph of her in Carmen, taken in 1949 after the creation of the ballet in that year by her in London, Petit commented that it was one of his favourite souvenirs, and that she had since given an amazing 2000 performances of the ballet throughout the world. Curiously, the work did not enter into the Paris Opera repertoire until 1990.

Each exhibit has its own story and Petit is ever ready with an anecdote. Commenting on how he obtained a back-cloth from Picasso, he said he simply knocked on the artist's door, asked for his help and was told to choose the painting he wanted for his ballet and subsequently walked off with it under his arm. Unfortunately he had to return it, which was not the case with a statue of Nijinsky by Antoine Bourdelle. 'There were 8 of them", he said, "and the artist's daughter sold me one for 2.5OF. A pity Picasso didn't do the same… "

With a grin on his face, he halted in front of a large, four-paneled screen, Méphisto-Valse, by Jean Cocteau. "Jean Cocteau was terribly fastidious about his appearance", he turned round to say. "When he was completing the work, he splashed some paint on his trousers and because he couldn't stand to see the dirty mark, whipped them off and continued painting in his underpants while my mother, who was there too, cleaned off the spot with turpentine." The ballet, a waltz with the devil, is set to music by Liszt, with a libretto, scenery and costumes by Jean Cocteau.

Jean Cocteau, too, wrote, or, according to Petit, "improvised" the libretto of Le Jeune Homme et la Mort upon getting out of his bath, still wrapped up in a towel. It is still danced today against the now legendary 1946 décor of first the room, followed by the roof-tops of Paris by Georges Wakhevitch. The ballet, created by Jean Babilée, has been immortalized on film by Rudolf Nureyev.

Roland Petit: Le Jeune Homme et la Mort
Décors: Georges Wakhevitch
Photo: Julien Benhamou / Opéra national de Paris

Evidence of his work and personal esteem for Rudolf Nureyev can also be seen in photographs of Petit's 1967 ballet, Paradise Lost, the first contemporary creation for the great Russian dancer in which he was partnered by Margot Fonteyn at Covent Garden and by the presence of one of Nureyev's richly jeweled doublets which he had worn in a production ofSwan Lake.

"Even though this exhibit is not directly connected with my own work, I wanted something of my own to remember Rudolf by", said the French choreographer, "and Zizi and I bought it together at a public auction." The doublet, made of black velvet and hand-embroidered with sequins, strass and imitation stones the colour of topaze and differing autumnal shades of gold and brown, with gold thread edging a black-silk collar, is presented in a glass frame, not far from the drawings for the back-cloth of another ballet, Extase. Created for Nureyev in 1968 at La Scala, Extase was set to a score by Scriabine, one of the Russian's favourite composers, and the back-cloth in the exhibition is by Giorgio De Chirico.

Roland Petit: Clavigo
Photographie de scène: Palais Garnier, 2003
Photo: Christian Leiber/ Opéra national de Paris

But the exhibition also shows the very close artistic links Petit has kept with the Paris Opera Ballet. Notre-Dame de Paris, with costumes by Yves Saint Laurent, entered into the French company's repertoire in 1965, and since then there have been a further 25 creations and ballets given to the company, the most recent being Proust ou les Intermittences du Coeur. Part of this ballet, a pas de deux with Mathieu Ganio and Stéphane Bullion, is shown on film on the lower ground floor of the Opera, the old Rotonde des Abonnés, as well as excerpts from other works with dancers of the Paris Opera including Jérémie Bélingard in L'Arlésienne and highlights from Clavigo. The film of Nureyev in Jeune Homme et la Mort is also being shown as well as a more surprising sequence which must belong to Roland Petit and Zizi Jeanmaire alone. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev are shown rehearsing Paradise Lost back in 1967. Fonteyn stands back laughing while Nureyev's whole face is lit up with that enchanting smile of his as he extricates himself from a complicated position, making fun of himself as he plays up to the cameraman.

* The exhibition is open from 10hr to 16hr 30, from January 12th to April 21st 2008.

** Many of Petit's ballets have been filmed, including Notre Dame de Paris, based on Victor Hugo's novel, with a score by the contemporary French composer, Maurice Jarre. It tells the story of the hunchback, Quasimodo, (Nicholas Le Riche), who is in love with the dancer, Esmeralda (Isabelle Guérin), who has also attracted the attention of Captain Phoebus, (Manuel Legris) as well as the evil Frollo, (Laurent Hilaire)

Patricia Boccadoro is the Dance Editor at

Related Culturekiosque Archives:

Proust According to Roland Petit

Murder and Suicide Bring Paris Audience to its Feet

Dance Review: Petit and Robbins at the Palais Garnier

Golden Oldies: Roland Petit at the Palais Garnier

Roland Petit and the Ballet of Marseille

Roland Petit et le Ballet de Marseille (en français)

Yann Bridard: la technique au service de l' art (en français)

Au temps de Marcel Proust:
F. G. Seligmann's Private Collection at the Carnavalet Museum

Paris Opéra Ballet: Clavigo

Marie-Claude Pietragalla to head Ballet de Marseilles

Tribute to Boris Kochno 1904 - 1990

Spartacus and His Gladiator Slaves Battle Roman Legions at the Bolshoi

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