French choreographer and dancer Roland Petit died Sunday in Geneva at age 87. French cultural minister Frédéric Mitterand called Petit “one of the major choreographers of the 20th century.”
French choreographer and dancer Roland Petit, who helped set up Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees and formed several more dance companies, died Sunday in Geneva at the age of 87. Petit served as Paris Opera artistic director for a few months in the 1970s but he gave up the job to buy the Casino de Paris concert hall in which he staged revues that starred his wife Zizi Jeanmaire. Petit created around a hundred dramatic ballets, which often combined fantasy with contemporary realism, including “The Strolling Players” and “Carmen,” and did the choreography for several French and US films.
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said that Petit was “one of the major choreographers of the 20th century”.
Petit made his first attempts at choreography aged 16 but, despite a promising career at l’Opéra, it became clear that the regulated and hierarchical atmosphere of that company was not for him. At the age of 20, he resigned. Evenings of dance performances at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt let him show himself in his own choreographies and eventually led to his forming – with financial help from his father – Les Ballets des Champs Elysées. Petit remained with the company for three years, choreographing a number of works, most notably Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (1946), created for Babilée and Nathalie Philippart. The ballet showcased Babilée’s extraordinary personality and amazing technique. Although it has been reprised by numerous male dancers from Rudolf Nureyev to Mikhail Baryshnikov, none has surpassed the original cast.
“With his muse Renee Jeanmaire, or Zizi, with whom he formed a mythic couple, he wrote some of the most beautiful pages of contemporary music hall,” the minister said.
Petit was born in Villemomble, on the outskirts of Paris. His father, Edmond, was a restaurateur and his Italian-born mother, Rose, later founded a shop, Repetto, which made and sold ballet shoes and dancewear. From an early age, Petit showed an interest in dancing. At the age of nine, he entered the Paris opera ballet school. He joined the company in 1940.
Petit last year returned to the Paris Opera Ballet with three of his favourite ballets, “The Young Man and Death,” “Le Rendezvous” and “The Wolf”.
From 1972 to 1998 he was director of the Ballet de Marseille. Petit received numerous honours, including commandeur de l’Ordre National du Mérite and commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur. His publications included J’ai Dansé Sur les Flots (I Danced On the Waves, 1993) and he had been working on an autobiography. He had been due in London this month to oversee final rehearsals for a programme of his work, including Carmen, to be staged by English National Ballet at the Coliseum in London.
“Each time he came it was like the return of the prodigal son,” said Brigitte Lefevre, artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet where Petit trained as a dancer.
Petit had lived in Geneva for the last 10 years. He has one daughter, Valentine