Years ago, Roland Petit said to me: “I must come back to London.” It was where he made his first tour in 1946, audiences bowled over by the freshness and theatricality of his productions. This was the city where, 13 years later, his Carmen stopped the traffic and brought massive acclaim for his creativity and for the blazing artistry of Zizi Jeanmaire. I saw Petit in April, when he came to London to watch English National Ballet rehearsing three of his ballets. His death two weeks ago meant that we were denied his proper return – on Thursday night, when ENB presented L’Arlésienne, Le jeune Homme et la Mort and Carmen – but he was there, nonetheless, in the many and dazzling aspects of his creativity.
These are early works, witness to qualities central to his genius: visual sophistication, as seen in Clavé’s prodigious designs (even in this over-laundered account); dramatic clarity, in the progress of the ballets; roles that encourage a dancer to shine. I have been fortunate to have seen the original interpreters in each of the ballets in this triple bill. No one could ever rival Jean Babilée in Jeune Homme, a portrait born of despair, anger, vulnerability. For ENB, Yonah Acosta was fine in technical resource, but as yet a stranger to the Young Man’s anguish. The revelation was Anais Chalendard’s account of Death, impeccable in style, devastating and beautiful, a reading of superlative understanding.
I much admired Esteban Berlanga as the young man in L’Arlésienne – which I think of as Petit’s Les Noces, albeit unconsummated in this version – haunted by another voice than that of his bride-to-be. His reading was sensitive to every demand, with Erina Takahashi touching, pathetic as the women he cannot marry.
The closing Carmen suffered somewhat from the expanses of the Coliseum stage. Clavé’s amazing designs must blaze more fiercely, and the drama’s progress become more inevitable, more intense in its savours, more garlicky. Juan Rodriguez was a fine, take-no-prisoners bandit, and Begonia Cao and Fabian Reimar were conscientious in the leading roles, but sexual bravado was not on the bill of fare. Carmen remains, though, a masterpiece of dramatic dance. And so Petit came back to London. It was at once the most splendid and saddest of returns.