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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 26 APRIL 2013 — Four vicious murders and an audience on its feet cheering! Such an event could only be for the early masterpieces of the charismatic French choreographer, Roland Petit, an extraordinary creative genius. Three wonderful ballets full of drama, passion and colour, each with a beginning, a middle, and alas, an end, were programmed at the Palais Garnier in March as a tribute to Petit, who died in July, 2011.

The programme began with Le Rendez-vous, a ballet created almost seventy years ago at the end of World War II, which has become a classic of the company’s repertoire. It was inspired by a meeting of Jacques Prévert, Brassai, and Joseph Kosma in a small room behind the kitchen of Petit’s father’s café in Les Halles, where Petit, aged only 21 at the time, listened enthralled to Prévert unfolding the story. And in an impromptu visit to Picasso’s studio in the Rue des Grands- Augustins, the young choreographer managed to convince the Spanish artist to give him the backcloth for his new ballet. Kosma created a haunting score for the work, the melody for the pas de deux being later picked up by Yves Montand who made it famous as "Autumn Leaves." Such was Petit’s personal magnetism even at that early age, that he was able to attract the greatest and most fashionable artists, writers, poets and musicians around him, from Picasso to Dutilleux and  Cocteau, with even Chaplin writing a scenario for him. 

Nicolas Le Riche and Eléonora Abbagnato in Le Rendez-vous
Choreography: Roland Petit

Le Rendez-vous, which takes place in the street outside a dance-hall at night, is a theatrical work full of atmosphere evoking the days of a Paris which has gone forever. It is focused around ‘the most beautiful girl in the world’. The Young Man, magnificently interpreted by Nicolas Le Riche, a supreme artist, believes he has tricked his destiny by arranging a rendezvous with the most beautiful girl, in this case, Eleonora Abbagnato, always at her best in the works of Roland Petit, but ironically, it is this very meeting which proves his undoing as the girl whips out her knife to put an end to his days.

Le Riche, one of Petit’s favourite interpreters, gave a phenomenal performance. Such was his intensity and involvement with the role, it was almost impossible to tear one’s eyes away from him even when he was immobile. His whole body was sheer emotion. Hugo Vigliotti as the hunchback gave an excellent performance, the dance sequences between the two men being outstanding.  Abbagnato, nominated étoile during her series of performances, added just that touch of cold vulgarity to the role of the most beautiful girl, enough to let us see his imminent demise.

Hugo Vigliotti as the hunchback in Le Rendez-vous
Choreography: Roland Petit

The second masterpiece based on an idea by Jean Anouilh, which dates back to 1953, was the timeless fairy-story, Le Loup, a ballet which has everything, from wonderful costumes to fantastic scenery, outstanding music, and a coherent, fluid yet highly dramatic story-line. A tragic version of Beauty and the Beast, it is nevertheless a true love story which clearly demonstrates that love is stronger than death.

Anouilh took a simple but cruel tale told to him by Georges Neveux and transformed it into a theatrical drama where a young bride, horrified by the callous treatment of her bridegroom, falls in love with a wolf. The wolf, for love of the girl, takes on the form of a man, but the villagers, full of prejudice, destroy him in order to return to the natural order of things. In a vain attempt to save him, the young bride throws herself in front of him, and so dies in the attempt, stabbed through the heart by a wooden stave.

An animal trainer has tricked the young bride into believing that her husband, who has in fact run off with another, has been changed into a wolf. So she takes the wolf by the arm, only to later realize he is in fact a real wolf, but worth far more than her shallow bridegroom.

To find the right music for his ballet, Petit went to the discotheque of ‘la radio nationale’, where he listened to scores of countless young composers before discovering the work of Henri Dutilleux, who, to his total stupefaction, spent the following three months composing the music alongside the creation of the choreography. It is the score itself which actually tells the story, with Dutilleux at Petit’s reheasals working alongside the choreographer at each stage of the ballet. It became such an integral part of the ballet that to this day, Dutilleux has never allowed it to be played in concert.

Le Loup
Choreography: Roland Petit

The work contains some of Roland Petit’s most outstanding and poetical choreography, particularly the impassioned pas de deux between Emilie Cozette, the abandoned bride, and Stéphane Bullion as the wolf, both dancers having been chosen for these roles by Petit himself.  Lyrical and full of grace, Cozette was truly enamoured of her handsome wolf, the tall, dark Bullion, a perfect foil to her delicate fair-haired beauty. She had, she told me after the performance, had the opportunity to work with Violette Verdy, who created the ballet in 1953.

The evening ended with Carmen, a ballet interpreted by Petit and wife, Zizi Jeanmaire, at its creation, and which triumphed in London in 1949. Since then, it has been performed over five thousand times throughout the world, and has become one of Roland Petit’s most famous works, a myth in itself.

Petit was first seduced by Prosper Mérimée’s story, set to Bizet’s melodies, a work which encompassed all his favourite themes. He imagined his Carmen as a vamp, a man-eating femme fatale. He wanted to create a violent as well as a passionate pas de deux, and have a bed on stage which had actually been slept on, or, made love on, a contributing factor together with the lascivious way in which the girls in the corps de ballet smoked their cigarettes, to the prohibition of the work in Canada the year after its creation.

Aurélie Dupont et Karl Paquette in Carmen
Choreography: Roland Petit

His spectacular, erotic and sensual ballet in five scenes, with outstanding costumes and decor by Antoni Clavé, astonishing at the time and amazing still today, has been seen at the Palais Garnier many times and has seen many exciting performances, from Manuel Legris, Nicolas Le Riche and José Martinez as Don José, and Marie-Claude Pietragalla, Aurélie Dupont, as well as guest stars Alessandra Ferri and Lucia Lacarra in the role of Carmen. Indeed, Aurélie Dupont was given the role of Carmen in 2000 and has imperceptibly changed her interpretation according to her partner.

Unforgettable already when partnered by Manuel Legris, how to respond to being partnered by Karl Paquette, who did not seem to understand that a black wig and swarthy make-up does not necessarily add up to Don José?  His dancing was honourable, but his interpretation puzzling. He was a Don José in love with himself. From the beginning, he treated Carmen as a slut, and even in their passionate duets, he had a tendency to rough her around a little too much. Why, then, should Carmen have been in love, or even remotely infatuated with him?

Aurélie Dupont, however, gave a remarkable performance, full of sensibility and charm, even when confronted at the end by the alarming prospect of Audric Bézard, a most extraordinary Escamillo. His costume was too tight and he wore far too much make-up, one eyebrow being dramatically higher than the other. No matter, the role was small, and he wasn’t on stage for very long, but no dancer before him has turned the bull-fighter into such a caricature.

Happily for the audience, the triumph lay in the chic, the sex, and the sophistication of the whole, of the heart-stopping performance of Aurélie Dupont, who brings an inner radiance to every role she dances. No matter that her partner failed her, head held proudly high, the question is rather how not to be in love with this warm, free-spirited and sensual Carmen.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Anglo-Bangladeshi choreographerAkram Khan.


Related Culturekiosque Dance Archives

Obituary and Remembrance: Roland Petit 1924 - 2011

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

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