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The many songs of Roland.

It is clearly regrettable, but just as we take some friends far too much for granted, so--by almost the same measure of that dangerous mix of familiarity and forgetfulness--we also take some artists far too much for granted. We are fascinated by the latest wave, the newest craze. We don't exactly overlook but we certainly quite frequently underestimate the guys who have been working steadily for years and years.

Think of the major classic choreographers of our century. And here I am trying to be fairly objective in considering simply output and general reputation. Of the indisputably significant--Fokine, Massine, Nijinska, Balanchine, Ashton, Tudor, and Robbins--only the last is still living. And even in the next rank--call them the disputably significant--death has already taken Cranko and MacMillan. But France's two leading choreographers, seventy-three-year-old Roland Petit and seventy-year-old Maurice Bejart, are still alive and very much kicking. And both enjoy considerable reputations in Europe, but, for many reasons, are far less highly regarded in North America.

But Petit, in particular, has been around for a long, long time--even so far as the United States is concerned. His Ballets de Paris, with his Cannen, made its New York City debut in October 1949, about a week before Britain's Royal Ballet (then merely impresario Sol Hurok's "fabulous" Sadler's Wells Ballet) took its first Manhattan bow. Yet, unlike those Royals, Petit's presence on the New York scene, despite many seasons with various manifestations of his company, has never quite solidified. Strange--because, apart from Balanchine, of all the major European-born choreographers (including Ashton and Tudor), Petit is the most American-oriented and Yankeebesotted. He is as rapturous about New York City as a tourist poster.

I have known Petit's choreography, and Petit himself, for years--ever since April 9, 1946, when Boris Kochno's Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees came from Paris to open in London, with Petit as principal choreographer and, together with Jean Babilee and Poul Gnatt, one of its leading male dancers. Later he broke with Kochno, and in 1948 formed his Ballets de Paris, which on February 21, 1949, gave in London the world premiere of his blockbuster Carmen, which proved his calling card to the world.

What was always interesting about Petit, totally apart from his choreography, was the manner in which he absorbed the Kochno lesson, which Kochno himself received from Diaghilev, Benois, and Fokine, of ballet as a collaboration, a kind of combined operation of the arts, in which design and painting, together with music and drama, played a vital role. Gerard Mannoni in his book Roland Petit: Un Choregraphe et ses Peintres gives a marvelous overview of all the painters with whom Petit has collaborated over the years, from Antoni Clave and Christian Berard to David Hockney and Erte.

This sense of design has been generally lacking in dance, and it is something that still gives Petit's current company, Ballet-National de Marseille, a special quality we could do with in American ballet. The veteran Petit is today regarded as the grand master of French ballet, with a career as a major choreographer that extends over more than half a century. And recently the town and port of Marseilles went en fete for a grand gala--televised live all over Europe--celebrating Petit's twenty-five years with his Marseilles troupe, a program, given on a massive, steel-girdered stage built over the water. The evening emerged as part tribute and part retrospective.

I was happy to "assist," as the French so felicitously say, at the performance. And the Vieux Port of Marseilles is a magic place in which to assist, especially at dusk--that blue hour--when the masts of the little boats, the flags, and the twinkling lights on the water suggest a painting by Raoul Dufy, while more than a few of the local inhabitants drinking at the cafes fringing the harbor remind you that this is Marcel Pagnol territory. Once or twice you even think you've seen Raimu.

It was a delightful situation for bouquet-giving. And the tribute was not for Petit alone but also for his wife, Zizi Jeanmaire, who started professional life as a ballerina but became a legend of the French music hall, the successor to the likes of Mistinguett and Piaf In all of this she has been assisted by Petit, who has never confined his talents to the ballet stage but, very like Robbins, has also proved a consummate man of the theater. All the ballets were presented in extracts, and, naturally enough, apart from the inevitable bit from Carmen, the program concentrated on the works that Petit had created in Marseilles, some of which the company brought on its various tours to the United States. Marseilles loves Petit, and Petit loves Marseilles. His versatility was perfect in building a major company from scratch, and it was this versatility that here proved perfectly showcased.

Looking back over the fifty-one years I have been privileged to watch Petit's work, I am amazed at what he possessed that so few other choreographers have only dreamed of--this impresario-like, Diaghilevian quality of taste, and a vision to see dance as a component of total theater. This is something extraordinarily rare in American classic ballet. Modern dance has a better record--with the likes of Graham, Cunningham, and Taylor, forming alliances with artists and painters--but it is very rare that we see a ballet that pays even lip service to the Diaghilev ideal.

You see, I still recall my baptism of grace with Petit, so long ago on that first night at London's Adelphi Theatre in 1946. And although that night gave me my first glimpse of one of the three greatest male dancers of the century (Babilee in Janine Charrat's Jeu de Cartes), it was the fantastic simplicity of Petit's new ballet, Les Forains, with its theme by Kochno, its music by Henri Sauguet, and its flim-sily magical designs by Berard, that really took my breath away. Here was a style of ballet--a sense of chic successfully parading as art--that I had never experienced before. It gave me some new ideas about ballet, some different insights, that I have never completely abandoned.

Of course, like all my ballet generation, I soon became a neoclassicist. But the damage of decor had been done. When I first saw Balanchine's Symphony in C, I must have been one of the few people who regretted the loss of the Leonor Fini designs it had boasted in Paris, in its Paris Opera premiere as Le Palais de Cristal. That was my first legacy from Petit and Kochno.
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Title Annotation:Roland Petit, one of France's leading choreographers at 73 is still an active influence in the world of dance
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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