Roland Petit: Dancer and choreographer whose wildly varied works mixed the classical and demotic with energy and style

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The Independent Online

Roland Petit dominated French dance for over 60 years and with his wife Renée (Zizi) Jeanmaire formed one of France's most glamorous couples. Ever ready to break ballet conventions, he mixed the demotic and the classical; he used rock music and pop art, revue-style chorus lines and narratives based on literary classics. His repertoire and energy were vast. His first works defined the Parisian existentialist malaise of the 1940s and 50s. And his early success gave him access to the world's best theatres and artists and entry to Hollywood, where he choreographed musicals.

Born in 1924 in Villemomble near Paris, he grew up in the city's old Halles quartier, where his father Edmond owned a brasserie. His mother, Rosa Repetto, came from Milan and in 1947, with her son's prodding, would found the dance-wear company Repetto. Always dancing, Petit entered the Paris Opera ballet school aged nine and joined the company at 16. Skinny and curly-haired (with maturity came baldness), he adored jazz and dreamed of escaping to America, away from the company's rigid constraints and the Nazi occupation.

His choreographic apprenticeship started in 1942, when he and a fellow-dancer, Janine Charrat, joined forces to show their work in one-off evenings. His talent soon impressed the movers and shakers of the ballet world. Invited to collaborate with the librettist Boris Kochno, who had been Diaghilev's assistant, and the stage designer Christian Bérard, he created Les Forains (The Travelling Players) in 1945, to music by Henri Saguet. Its success brought an offer from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées to start a company there, co-funded by the theatre and Edmond Petit.

In the two-year existence of the Ballets des Champs-Elysées, Petit staged a prodigious number of works. These included Le Rendezvous (1945), an evocation of end-of-war Paris that used, in the Diaghilevian spirit of synthesis, the quintessential art of that era – a poem by Jacques Prévert, a front cloth by Picasso, photos by Brassaï and music by Joseph Kosma. This and Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (with designs by Marie Laurencin) formed part of the company's programme for London the following year. After one of these performances, the young critic Clive Barnes wondered how he would now be satisfied with plodding English ballet: "They [the French] were so different. So smart. So chic."

In June 1946, Petit created his most famous ballet: Le Jeune Homme et La Mort, with the extraordinary Jean Babilée as the young man and Natalie Philippart as the seductress/death figure. (Much later, Nureyev and Baryshnikov performed the male role, to much lesser effect.) Jean Cocteau wrote the libretto and rehearsals used jazz music. It wasn't until the first performance that the decision was taken to substitute Bach's majestic Passacaglia: an inspired choice adding to the sense of mythic inevitability and forming a poetic contrast with the grim realism of the young man's garret. Babilée applied his superlative classical training to furniture-kicking, cigarette-smoking moves and three remarkable back-flips. Georges Wakhévitch's rooftop panorama, with Paris's Citroë* neon sign in the night sky, provided an overwhelming ending. Petit was just 22 and Paris was at his feet.

Petit felt he lacked control over the Ballets des Champs-Elysées, so he started another company. Les Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit made its debut in 1948 with Margot Fonteyn as guest dancer, appearing as the cat woman in Les Demoiselles de la Nuit. Petit had a brief and rather melodramatic affair with Fonteyn which included jumping in the Seine and persuading her to have her nose reduced.

It also meant that Jeanmaire, who had grown up with Petit at the Paris Opera and was now a member of his company, gave him an ultimatum. In response, Petit created his version of Carmen and its world premiere, in London in 1949, was a sensation, with Petit as Don José and Jeanmaire as Carmen. Jeanmaire made an enormous impact, sporting her new trademark haircut, like a boy's, not a ballerina's. But also the choreography's eroticism and acerbic originality brought Petit real international fame and a season in New York.

In 1954 Jeanmaire and Petitmarried and moved to Hollywood, where Petit choreographed films such as Daddy Long Legs (1955) with another of his dancers, Leslie Caron.Returning to Paris, he continuedcreating ballets for his own company and others: Notre Dame de Paris (1965), for example, designed by Yves Saint Laurent, for the Paris Opera Ballet, with Petit as Quasimodo; and Paradise Lost (1967) for the Royal Ballet with Fonteyn and Nureyev.

He was also breathing the air of popular culture, as the creative force behind Jeanmaire's reinvention as a cabaret artist. He devised shows for her, and Mon Truc en Plumes (My Feather Boa) became her most famous song-and-dance number. In 1970 he briefly acquired the Casino de Paris; that same year he even more briefly became director of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Then, in 1972 he signed a deal to head the Ballet de Marseille. This provincial company now became an international big-hitter for 26 years. Itswide-ranging, savvy repertoire included Pink Floyd Ballet (1972), with the band playing on stage, and a radical remake of Coppélia (1976) with Petit as Dr Coppelius.

Petit created works for ballet's greatest stars and companies, including Russia's Bolshoi and Mariinsky, where he was especially appreciated. In 1998 he left the Marseilles Ballet and moved to Geneva, from where he travelled the world to stage his ballets. He was due to come to London for English National Ballet's Petit programme at the Coliseum this July.

His autobiography, J'ai Dansé sur les Flots, was published in 1993. Petit distilled in his work a Parisian stylishness, where audacity is tempered with elegance. But although his choreography could sometimes seem facile, at his best he was inventive and inspired, a true man of the theatre.

Nadine Meisner

Roland Petit, dancer, choreographer and director: born Villemomble, France 13 January 1924; married 1954 Renée Jeanmaire (one daughter); died Geneva 10 July 2011.