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ROLAND PETIT: 1924 - 2011 



By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 12 JULY 2011 — It was with a profound sense of shock and sadness that dance-lovers in France learnt of the sudden death of Roland Petit, one of the greatest artists of twentieth century dance. His beloved wife and muse, Zizi Jeanmaire, the woman he regarded as his other half, and his daughter, Valentine, were by his side.

The Grand ‘Old’ Man of French dance died on Sunday, 10 July at his home in Geneva after being struck down by a vicious bout of leukemia a few days previously. At 87, one cannot expect to live forever, but Roland Petit was never, ever, "old". Tall, robust, virile, malicious of eye and as vigorous and compelling in his eighties as he had ever been, time had dealt kindly with him. Age, sickness and death were things that happened to others, not to him, an icon of the arts to whom, one could almost believe, had been given the gift of immortality.  

Roland Petit
Photo: Anne Deniau

Petit was born in Villemomble on the 13th of January, 1924, the son of Edmond Petit, a French chef of renown, and Rose Repetto, wardrobe mistress at the Paris Opera, who founded the famous Repetto Ballet shoes in 1947 at his instigation. After entering the school there at the age of ten, he joined the Paris Opera Ballet, but left at barely twenty to concentrate on choreography.

"But the adventure really began", he told me some years ago, "when Christian Bérard and Boris Kochno accepted to create the ballet, Les Forains, with me, which we set to music by Henri Sauguet. It tells the simple story of a group of wandering players who perform in a small village but get little reward for their pains. That was just after the war, in 1945, and I danced in it myself with Solange Schwarz. We wrote, designed, and choreographed it in 13 days, and the original pas de deux I’d planned became a full-length work, and I think, marked the beginning of my career as a choreographer."

Yann Saiz and Stephanie Romberg in Les Forains
Choreography: Roland Petit
Photo: Icare

His second equally successful ballet was Le Rendez-vous, libretto by Jacques Prévert with a score by Joseph Kosma, upon which Montand’s fabled song, Autumn Leaves is based. Such was the demand to see these two works performed that Petit formed his own troupe before the end of the year, the "Ballets des Champs-Elysées", renamed the "Ballets of Paris" three years later.  And then in 1949 came Carmen, a landmark in European dance, which was created in London for himself and his wife, Zizi Jeanmaire. It was so theatrical, so vibrantly alive and sexually explicit that it brought him international attention. The renaissance of French ballet had begun.

Roland Petit: Carmen
Photo: Anne Deniau

Roland Petit, assisted by Bérard, Kochno and Jean Cocteau, the author who wrote the ten lines behind Petit’s most famous work, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, gathered all the brightest talents in Paris around him. His productions, superbly decorated by all the leading artists of the day, from Picasso, Marie Laurencin, Georges Wakhevitch and Brassai to David Hockney, with their costumes by Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Cocteau, and Delvaux have an elegance, chic and beauty uniquely Parisian. Meanwhile, the greatest living French composers, including Olivier Messian, Henri Dutilleux, and Marcel Landowski as well as Maurice Jarre composed scores for him.

Attracted momentarily by Hollywood, he choreographed the dance sequences of several films including Hans Christian Anderson with Danny Kaye, Daddy Long Legs with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, and Anything Goes with Zizi Jeanmaire herself and Bing Crosby, before returning to Paris where he adapted his experience in American musical comedy to the shows he conceived for La Revue des Ballets de Paris. Between 1970 and 1975 he owned and directed the Casino de Paris, creating revues for Jeanmaire, including the legendary show, Zizi, je t’aime, declaring once more his love for her. "Zizi and me", he later wrote, "is forever and beyond", adding dramatically, "Whichever of us is left after the other dies will have to be exceptionally brave; they will have lost their other half".

Roland Petit: Le Rendez-vous
Photo: Anne Deniau

His meanderings came to a twenty-six-year halt in 1972, when despite the attraction of becoming the permanent director of the Paris Opera Ballet (appointed in 1970, but resigned from his post six months later), he became the chief choreographer and director of the new Ballet National de Marseilles, finally obtaining permission to found a school there in 1992. Works such as his attractive version of Coppélia, Puss in Boots, starring Patrick Dupond at the peak of his popularity, and the Proustian Les Intermittences du Coeur, created for his company in 1974 and given to the Paris Opera Ballet in 2007 belong to this period. Dominique Khalfouni, the undisputed queen of the Paris company and one of France’s loveliest ballerinas was lured away from the French capital to create works such as Ma Pavlova, and Blue Angel, while dancers such as Alessandra Ferri, Carla Fracci, Elisabetta Terabust and Lucia Laccara guested frequently in Marseilles, where he created yet more ballets for them.

All the great dancers worked with Petit, including Jean Babilée, creator of Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, Baryshnikov, who danced it in the film, White Nights, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Natalia Makarova and Maya Plisetskaya, for whom the choreographer created another of his masterpieces, La Rose Malade in 1973, a ballet set to an evocative score by Mahler but regrettably not often seen in France. 

Roland Petit: Le Jeune Homme et la Mort
Photo: Anne Deniau

Inspired by the poem by John Milton, Petit created Paradise Lost in 1967 for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and cast the two stars as Adam and Eve. It was set in a pop art idiom and gave Nureyev in particular highly inventive choreography, the likes of which he’d never danced before. The French choreographer also kept lifelong relationships with both these stars, venerating Fonteyn, and being one of the few who remained loyal to Rudolf Nureyev, despite their ups and downs over the years, inviting him to conduct the orchestra in Marseilles just weeks before the great Russian’s death.

Paradise Lost, however, was a ballet that came in for a certain amount of criticism from British critics, criticism which left Petit undeterred as did the plethora of awards and medals that were showered upon him.

"Dance critics", he once told me, shrugging his eloquent shoulders, "can hold whatever opinions they want. A good write-up all too often depends upon the mood they are in, whether they have had dinner or are thinking about it, whether they were out drinking the night before and have a headache, whether they had had a row with their husband or wife before the performance, or even simply that they want my ballet to end so they can go and do their "pipi.""

Roland Petit
Photo: Icare

The Paris Opera Ballet itself and the dancers there remained close to his heart, where, despite his caustic, often cutting humour, he was well loved. The countless ballets in the repertoire bear witness to these ties. His creations for the company include, amongst others, Notre Dame de Paris, Adages et variations, Turangalila, Shéhérazade, La Symphonie fantastique, and Nana, while many of his older masterpieces including Le Loup  and L’Arlésienne  are amongst the finest works in the repertory. Indeed, it is not simply that they are ‘modern’, they have become classics, a description that would please him enormously. In 1998 he went to live in Geneva, creating Clavigo in 1999 for the Paris company and spending time travelling in Europe, staging his ballets for the big international companies.

In 2004, with a smiling Zizi Jeanmaire at his side, Roland Petit celebrated not only his fifty years of marriage, but sixty years of creation in a superb evening at the Jean Vilar theatre in Suresnes. Les Chemins de la création illustrated his varied career, encompassing as it did ballet, revues, and televised shows, fields in which he was equally happy working, as well as his innumerable encounters with all the greatest dancers of the century.

The immense debt that dance today owes to Roland Petit is perhaps best summed up in the words of the late Alvin Ailey. In a letter to Petit, Ailey acknowledged the fact that he owed his whole career to the French choreographer. "Everybody in the world of dance does", he wrote. "Roland Petit put poetry into movement. He staged stories with a moral and his creation of Carmen paved the way for American dance."

In the September programme of the Paris Opera Ballet this season, on the occasion of three of Petit’s outstanding works, he wrote that true choreography came from the dancer who inspires the breath and the inner rhythm that generated movement.  "One dancer may inspire violence in you, another lyricism, yet another tenderness and laughter. Being a choreographer implies the deep-felt happiness of discovering yourself as you reveal to others what you are capable of, and it is different each time." Dance for Roland Petit was not a job to be done but an act blessed with inspiration.

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 Manuel Legris, Artistic Director of  the Vienna State Opera Ballet.

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Murder and Suicide Return to the Palais Garnier

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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