Obituary: Roland Petit

Roland Petit, French choreographer, dancer and producer, died in Geneva on Sunday morning. He was 87 years old. Petit’s career was remarkable for its longevity, its artistic range, and for the distinction of his creative means and his artistic collaborations.

A graduate of the ballet school at the Paris Opéra, Petit made his first choreographic essay when he was not yet 20, with Paris still under German occupation. It is significant that he should have asked Marie Laurencin to provide a design for this early work, and that Jean Cocteau should have decorated a second creation; here were the portents for the painters, designers, couturiers, who were to decorate his subsequent stagings. In 2007 an exhibition in Geneva, devoted to the artists who worked with Petit and his wife Zizi Jeanmaire, offered hundreds of designs by collaborators ranging from Picasso to the graffiti artist Keith Haring, by way of Paul Delvaux, Erté, Dior, Tom Keogh, André Beaurepaire, Jean Carzou, Antoni Clavé, Bernard Buffet, David Hockney and Yves Saint Laurent, who costumed Jeanmaire with unfailing wit in the revues that Petit was to make for her.

If Petit’s visual sense was marked by elegance and theatrical vitality, so were the productions that mark him as one of the masters of theatre in our time. In 1946, with the significant encouragement of Boris Kochno, who had been Diaghilev’s amanuensis, Petit formed his first company, Les Ballets des Champs Elysées. The troupe epitomised everything that was innovative, as Paris recovered from German Occupation. Petit’s ballets (the troupe of strolling players in Les Forains, the existential tensions of Le Jeune homme et la mort, which introduced Jean Babilée, whose dance genius was matched by an astounding dramatic presence) were a revelation of a new view of ballet.

Within a couple of years Petit was to form another company, Les Ballets de Paris, and in 1949 he staged Carmen which starred Jeanmaire. Her prodigious performance, allied to Petit’s own electric performance as Don José and the blaze of Clavé’s design, brought worldwide acclaim to Petit and Jeanmaire.

From this moment, Petit accepted every challenge that he was offered. He made dances for the Hollywood films in which Jeanmaire was to star and others for Fred Astaire. He produced such full-length ballets as Les Intermittences du coeur, with its Proustian theme, and Notre Dame de Paris at the Paris Opera. He acquired the Casino de Paris, where he staged dazzling “shows” in which Jeanmaire blazed in Saint Laurent costumes, amid a madness of feathers, paillettes and routines in which she also revealed an urchin voice of irresistible charm.

Petit’s creative vitality next brought him to Marseille, where he directed a fine company for 25 years. Throughout his career he made ballets that were studies of the world’s leading dancers. He transformed Margot Fonteyn into a mysterious cat-woman in Les Demoiselles de la nuit and made works to star Makarova (in The Blue Angel), Baryshnikov, as Herman in The Queen of Spades, Maya Plisetskaya, Rudolf Nureyev, and many more. He made an enchanting new version of Coppélia, and radical versions of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. His ballets were staged by companies around the world; I recall an audience of young people in Beijing enraptured by Petit’s Pink Floyd Ballet, and an impeccable account of Chauve Souris in Tokyo.

In everything, Petit showed faultless command of the arts of the theatre, and a prodigious craftsmanship. His career, like that of his wife, demonstrated a wonderful generosity of spirit in making dance, and that precious quality of chic. I was honoured by Petit’s and his wife’s friendship, and today I know the world is a darker place.

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