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Roland Petit
Choreographer

© Ann Ray / OnP

Roland Petit was born in Villemomble on January 13, 1924. In 1933, he entered the Paris Opera Ballet School, where he received lessons from Gustave Ricaux. After joining the Paris Opera’s Corps de Ballet in 1940, he danced the repertoire that had been reconstituted by Carlotta Zambelli and Albert Aveline, as well as the works of Serge Lifar. During the same period, he also worked with Mme. Rousanne at the Studio Wacker (where he encountered Maurice Béjart, Violette Verdy and Leslie Caron). Made a Sujet in 1943, he danced the role of Carmelo in Lifar’s L’Amour sorcier alongside Teresina and Lycette Darsonval. At the age of 20, Roland Petit resigned from the Opera. Together with Janine Charrat, he presented his first choreographic pieces at the Dance Evenings organised by Irène Lidova. It was also a period during which he attended the classes of Boris Kniaseff (who created the classical floor barre method). In 1945, with the support of Roger Eudes, Boris Kochno and Irène Lidova, Roland Petit, and the material aid of his father, he created the Ballets des Champs-Élysées: Les Forains, Le Rendez-vous, and soon thereafter Le Jeune homme et la Mort would bring together writers (Boris Kochno, Jacques Prévert and Jean Cocteau), set designers (Christian Bérard, Brassaï, and Georges Wakhévitch) and composers (Henri Sauguet and Joseph Kosma), establishing from the outset a theatrical conception of ballet to which Roland Petit would remain faithful throughout his career. In 1948, the choreographer left the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to create the Ballets de Paris, a company which performed at the Théâtre Marigny. the year 1949 was marked by the premiere performance of Carmen in London which was also when Renée Jeanmaire became known as Zizi. The following year, Ninette de Valois asked Roland Petit to direct Ballabile for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in London. Again in London, he collaborated with Orson Welles for The Lady in the Ice (1953). An international career was quickly opening up before him and he was soon invited to Hollywood where he would spend four years. Whilst there, Roland Petit filmed Hans Christian Andersen (starring Zizi Jeanmaire and Danny Kaye in 1952), Daddy Long Legs (with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron) in 1954, and Anything Goes (with Zizi Jeanmaire and Bing Crosby) in 1955. On his return from the United States, Roland Petit adapted the American stage musical to French tastes and produced the Ballets de Paris Revue, first at the Théâtre de Paris and then at the Alhambra (1956-1959). He then directed Marcel Aymé’s operetta Patron (with music by Guy Béart and sets and costumes by Bernard Buffet) at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt (1960) and filmed Black Tights with Moira Shearer, Cyd Charisse and Zizi Jeanmaire in 1960. In 1961, The Zizi Revue (with costumes by Yves Saint Laurent) caused a sensation at the Alhambra with the hit song Mon truc en plumes (music by Jean Constantin). In 1965, after numerous tours with the “Ballets de Paris and twenty years after having left the Paris Opera, Roland Petit was invited back to the Palais Garnier to present two new works at the request of the Paris Opera’s administrator Georges Auric: Adages et Variations et Notre-Dame de Paris. Petit also returned to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1966, for Éloge de la Folie, with the Ballets de Paris. From 1967 to 1969, he choreographed pieces in London for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet: Paradis perdu, Pelléas et Mélisande (Schönberg); he also choreographed Estasi (Scriabine) for Rudolf Nureyev and Luciana Savignano at La Scala in Milan. In 1970, he accepted an offer to become dance director of the Paris Opera, but he resigned after just six months. He then purchased the Casino de Paris and staged the revue Zizi, je t’aime (with sets and costumes by Erté, Yves Saint Laurent, Vasarely, Guy Pellaert, César, and songs by Jean-Jacques Debout, Guy Béart, Jean Ferrat, Michel Legrand, and Serge Gainsbourg). Despite being a huge success the heavy tax burden forced Roland Petit and Zizi to abandon the enterprise. In 1972, the mayor of Marseille, Gaston Defferre, invited Roland Petit to come and revitalise the city’s municipal Opera. After gaining its autonomy, the Ballets de Marseille was established. The company had its first production at the Avignon Festival with Allumez les étoiles (after Mayakovsky). In 1981 the company officially became the Ballet National de Marseille-Roland Petit and toured the world. In 1992, Roland Petit received permission from the trustees to expand the educational aspects of his work with the creation of the École Nationale Supérieure de Danse de Marseille in the premises that also hosted the Ballet National de Marseille. Roland Petit continued to divide his time between the ballet (with new productions for his own company, as well as the Paris Opera Ballet, the Berlin Staatsoper and Milan’s La Scala), revues (Zizi au Zénith, 1995), and the theatre (where he directed Marcel et La Belle excentrique, a play drawn from the work of Marcel Jouhandeau, for Zizi Jeanmaire and Michel Duchaussoy in 1992 and Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine for Alessandra Ferri at the Teatro Studio in Milan in 1994). After leading it for 26 years, Roland Petit finally left the Ballet National de Marseille in March 1998, after giving it his final work: Le Lac des cygnes et ses maléfices (Swan Lake and its Evil Spells). Roland Petit went on to restage many of his own works: Proust, ou les Intermittences du cœur at the Ballet National de Nancy, Notre-Dame de Paris, Le Jeune homme et la Mort, and L’Arlésienne at the National Theatre in Tokyo, and Le Boléro for Tetsuya Kumakawa’s K. Ballet Company)... He died in 2011 at the age of 87. Several of Roland Petit’s ballets have pride of place in the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire: L’Arlésienne, Carmen, Clavigo, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, Notre-Dame de Paris, Proust et les Intermittences du cœur, and Le Rendez-vous…

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