Just a few words to say ‘merci beaucoup, Monsieur Petit,’ for having given the world some of its most indelible choreographies, including 1946’s Le Jeune Homme et La Mort, followed by Carmen, the most sizzling cigarette girl on pointe, three years later. And helping polish those works to such a brilliant shine, was your wife, the astonishing Zizi Jeanmaire, the ballerina with the pixie haircut who survives you, as does your daughter Valentine. (And who should sport that same style haircut today, but the Bolshoi Ballet‘s ravishing Natalia Osipova).
Petit and Jeanmaire: In flight
And though I never was privileged to have met you, I feel I know you through your ballets, which continue to elevate, inspire and bring pleasure to so many of us. (We can see Nureyev and Zizi on YouTube in the 1966 version of Le Jeune Homme as well as Baryshnikov dance the role in the opening credits of Taylor Hackford’s 1985 film, White Nights.)
I was fortunate, however, to have met Jean Babilée (original danseur, Le Jeune Homme) at the International Ballet Festival in Havana in 2006 (founded by Madame Alicia Alonso, who still rules with her tulled hand, and where I also met Ospivoa and her betrothed, megastar Ivan Vasiliev). I also know Frédéric Flamand, the current director of Ballet Marseille, the troupe originally founded by you in 1972.
Frédéric Flamand’s Metapolis, a collaboration with architect Zaha Hadid for Ballet Marseille
And though you now are no longer choreographing on terra firma, the ballet world keeps on turning, with new generations of dancers learning your works. (Two Bolshoi über-stars, Nikolay Tsiskaridze and Vasiliev, comes to mind: Nikolay was supposed to dance Le Jeune Homme in Orange County in 2006 as part of The Kings of Dance program – click here to read my story for the Los Angeles Times – but because of problems transporting the set, it didn’t happen. I did learn, though, that you coached Nikolay for the work which he then performed in Tokyo.)
Baryshnikov as the tortured artist in Le Jeune Homme et La Mort
And we can still see your terpsichorean prowess from your Hollywood-dabbling days: You choreographed Hans Christian Andersen in 1951 (Danny Kaye and Zizi), 1955’s Daddy Long Legs (Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron), The Glass Slipper (also from 1955 and featuring Caron), and Anything Goes (Bing Crosby, Mitzi Gaynor, Zizi, etal, the following year).
The luscious Leslie Caron, also pixie-haired, in Daddy Long Legs
Quel fabulous career! In any case, for those wishing to read more about Roland Petit, click here for the New York Times obituary, written by my colleague, Anna Kisselgoff, former chief dance critic of that esteemed paper. Vive la danse!