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Golden Oldies
at the Palais Garnier

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 25 May 2000 - In the two years since the prestigious French choreographer Roland Petit was forced out of the Ballet of Marseilles, the troupe he had directed for almost thirty years, he has been freer to accept invitations to stage works for the Paris Opera ballet, and the Southern city's loss has been the French capital's gain.

The choreographer, who was trained at the Paris Opera school, began his career as a dancer in the company in 1940. Attracted by choreography, he left four years later and formed his own troupe, the Ballets des Champs- Elysées, surrounding himself with the brightest young talents in Paris ; writers Boris Kochno and Jean Cocteau, painters Christian Bérard , Georges Wakhevitch, and composers such as Henri Sauguet who composed the haunting score for Les Forains. The works which followed, full of atmosphere, verve and chic, heralded the Renaissance of French ballet.

After the creation of Clavigo at the beginning of the season, a sumptuous programme of three of his early masterpieces, danced by the company's younger generation, was presented recently.


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

The evening began with the melancholic and poetic Les Forains , a highly nostalgic work telling the story of a group of strolling players who arrive in a small town, but get short shrift from the locals for their pains . Cold and weary, without money for food, they are obliged to move on. Interpreted by members of the corps de ballet, it was danced with tenderness and charm.

This was followed by Petit's colourful and fiery version of Carmen , soon to celebrate its five thousandth performance. Over the years, the ballet has become inseparable from the legendary Zizi Jeanmaire who created the role in London in 1949 and became the star of French dance overnight. The story goes that the cheers and hysteria of the crowd was so great the orchestra had to interrupt playing. A hard act to follow, and particularly in the presence of Jeanmaire herself, there to watch Aurélie Dupont dancing the ballet for the first time.


.Carmen de Roland Petit

Aurélie Dupont in Carmen; Choreography: Roland Petit
Photo: Icare

Partnered by a superb Manuel Legris in the role of Don José, dramatic, authoritative, and tragic, the young etoile, despite lacking that little bit of perversity, coped admirably.

However, the climax of the evening was the eagerly awaited Le Jeune Homme et la Mort , based on Jean Cocteau's poem. A superlative work by any standards, it was magnificently interpreted by Nicolas Le Riche and Marie-Agnès Gillot in an electrifying performance.

Physical, earthy, and powerfully masculine, Nicolas Le Riche was a truly exceptional 'jeune homme', marking the role by his brooding intensity and audacious spectacular jumps. In Marie-Agnès Gillot, he has found the perfect partner . Violent and sensual , she dominated her victim with frightening authority.

Dans un atelier, un jeune homme seul attend.
Entre la jeune fille qui était cause de sa détresse.
Il s'élance vers elle. Elle le repousse. Il la supplie.
Elle l'insulte, le bafoue et s'enfuit.
Il se pend
. Jean Cocteau

In an artist's studio, a young man is waiting alone.
The young girl who was the cause of his distress arrives.
He rushes towards her. She knocks him aside. He pleads with her.
She insults him, slaps him, and takes flight.
He hangs himself
. Jean Cocteau

The ballet ends as she returns wearing a death-mask which she places over his face and leads him off over the rooftops of Paris.

Le jeune homme et la mort de Roland Petit
Nicolas Le Riche in Le Jeune homme et la mort; Choreography: Roland Petit
Photo: Icare

For an evening where we witness people slowly dying of starvation in the face of indifference, two murders, and an adolescent committing suicide, the delirious reaction of the home -going audience could only be explained by the exhilaration that comes from seeing such rich and vital choreography brilliantly danced. Roland Petit, then as now, is not afraid to tell a story, to talk about human beings and their emotions, and to stage works with decor, lighting and costumes. When all these conditions are linked to an interpretation of very great quality, ballets such as these remain alive year after year, and become unforgettable.



Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

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