A dance, unlike a painting, doesn't automatically appreciate in value on its creator's death.
When choreographer Roland Petit died this month while supervising English National Ballet's revival of some of his most famous works, the company had the task of turning a celebration into a fitting epitaph.
The jolt in perspective could perhaps be seen in the tears flooding down Begoña Cao's face as she took her bows at the end of Petit's Carmen. But until then, she and the rest of the company had dutifully served as executors of a legacy whose tone was more consistent than its quality.
Carmen, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort and L'Arlésienne all deal with men driven mad by their obsession for a woman. In L'Arlésienne she's a tormenting memory; in Carmen a gamey, sweating feast for the senses; and in Le Jeune Homme et la Mort a Louise Brooks wannabe who moonlights as the Grim Reaper.
Jeane Homme, which evolved in 1946 from a Jean Cocteau idea and is danced to Bach's Passacaglia, was making its company debut. It has a reputation for profundity, a distinguished list of past performers, including Nureyev and Baryshnikov, and a lot more comedy than you'd expect in a 15-minute piece about a man pushed into hanging himself by a femme fatale. The look on Yonah Acosta's face when Anaïs Chalendard, straddling his thigh, tried to kick-start his penis like a motorbike was unforgettable.
When not trying to load too much meaning on to classical dance vocabulary, Petit had a genius for finding exotic new accents within it. In L'Arlésienne, created in 1974 and danced to a score by Bizet, Esteban Berlanga's Boy, just before he defenestrates himself in despair, turns one of those grand, leaping tours of the stage beloved of virtuoso male dancers into an orgy of self-flagellation through little more than the odd stutter and stumble. Its economy of effect is staggering.
The trouble is that there can be too much economy in Petit. His cruising speed was cabaret, and Parisian revue clichés keep sneaking in. With its stark black- and white-clad ensemble forming rigid, stamping patterns, L'Arlésienne could almost have been created by Nijinska – if Nijinska had done jazz hands and bunny hops.
Carmen opened in London in 1949, with Petit's wife Renée – later "Zizi" – Jeanmaire in the title role. With her gamine haircut and potently ambiguous sexual energy she made it a scandalous success that ran for months. Dusting off a work of art that shocked your grandad's generation can be risky – for modern audiences the most depraved thing about Carmen is probably not her sexuality, but the fact that she works in a cigarette factory.
The ballet triumphs because it is better than perverted; it is, like its namesake, heroically perverse. The habanera which, in Bizet's opera, has Carmen warn potential lovers to beware is turned into a solo dance for
the yet-to-be-seduced Don Jose, performed as a homage to his own incorruptible prissiness.
The ballet remorselessly undermines classical values, and replaces them with the intractable fact of Carmen; her flesh, her appetites, her imperatives. Cao, drawing Fabian Reimair's Jose under her spell, does a little hip gyration before launching into a series of fouettes. Traditionally, these would be the climax of her performance, but here they are just tossed away carelessly to emphasise how her real meaning was in that tiny, preparatory, pelvic shrug.
Great ballerinas loved Petit, and it's easy to see why. He tried to turn them all into Zizi Jeanmaire, who to him was life, and death, and everything. No dancer could ask for more.
Clifford Bishop sees the Mariinsky Ballet's long-awaited Swan Lake
It's 50 years since the Mariinsky Ballet danced in London, so be sure to catch its Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House (till 8 Aug). In Konstantin Sergeyev's version of the ballet, the role of Odette/Odile will be taken by the company's leading ballerinas, including Uliana Lopatkina, Viktoria Tereshkina, Ekaterina Kondaurova and Alina Somova.