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#Throwback Thursday: Roland Petit

The Royal New Zealand Ballet's presentation of Carmen with L'Arlesienne premieres tonight in Christchurch's beautifully restored Isaac Theatre Royal, so for this #ThrowbackThursday I'll be talking about the ballets' choreographer: Roland Petit.

Petit was born on 13 January 1924, in Villemomble near Paris, France. He trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School, under such tutors as Gustave Ricaux, a former dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, and Serge Lifar, formerly star of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Upon graduation in 1940, he was accepted into the corp de ballet of the Paris Opera.

Roland Petit with Bolshoi Ballet star Svetlana Zakharova

In 1945, he founded the Ballet des Champs-Elysées, followed by the Ballets de Paris in 1948. Both were based in the Theatre Marigny, and featured Zizi Jeanmaire (later Petit's wife) as the leading dancer. He started to choreograph his own works, including Guernica (1945), Carmen (1949), and The Lady in the Ice (1953). These works continued to develop the concept of modern ballet in Petit's own style, and for them he collaborated with many of France's up and coming artists, including Henri Dutilleux, Serge Gainsbourg, Yves Saint-Laurent, and Cesar Baldaccini.

Yulia Kulik in 'Carmen'

In 1965, he returned to the Paris Opera to stage a production of Notre Dame de Paris, to music by Maurice Jarre. The work was well received, and he continued to stage ballets for companies in France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Cuba. In 1972, he founded the Ballet National de Marseille and served as artistic director for 26 years; the company's first piece was Petit's work Pink Floyd Ballet.

Svetlana Zakharova as Carmen and Andrei Uvarov as Don Jose, Bolshoi Ballet

Over his entire career, Petit choreographed 176 works of all genres, each reflecting his consistently developing style. He became known as a master of the pas de deux and of narrative ballets, but also found success with his more abstract works. He worked closely with painters Jean Carzou and Max Ernst for the scenery of his ballets, and choreographed for many of the most famous dancers of the period. He also worked with nouveaux realistes such as Martial Raysse, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely.

'Carmen', Carolina Ballet

Petit also worked in the film industry. In 1946, he appeared as a dancer in Symphonie en blanc, by Rene Chanas and Francois Ardoin. He contributed choreography to Alice in Wonderland (1948), The Glass Slipper (1954), Anything Goes (1956), and Black Tights (1960), for which he was also a writer and dancer. In 1994, Petit was awarded the Prix Benois de la Danse for his work in choreography. He died of leukemia on 10 July, 2011, aged 87.

Isabelle Ciaravola as Vivette and Jeremie Bellingard as Frederi in 'L'Arlesienne', Paris Opera Ballet

His most famous works include Le jeune homme de la mort, or The Young Man and Death (1946), which is considered his magnum opus; and the 1949 ballet Carmen. This ballet was created for the Ballets de Paris and premiered at the Prince's Theatre in London on 21 February 1949. It combines classical ballet, Spanish dance, mime and Petit's own brand of modern ballet. The music comes from Georges Bizet's famous 1875 opera of the same name, and the story based on the 1845 novel by Prosper Merimee. The original production had sets and costumes designed by Antoni Clave, and the original cast included Zizi Jeanmaire as Carmen, Petit himself as Don Jose, and Serge Perrault as Le Toreador. Within 50 years of the premiere, the ballet had been performed over 50,000 times around the world.

Isabelle Ciaravola as Vivette and Jeremie Bellingard as Frederi in 'L'Arlesienne', Paris Opera Ballet

The ballet is set in Seville, and begins with Carmen chasing a girl through a dancing crowd; the fight is interrupted by Don Jose, who aids Carmen's defeated opponent to her feet. Fascinated by Carmen, he arranges to meet her later. That night in the tavern, Carmen and Don Jose both dance before leaving together; the remaining customers begin a dance and Carmen and Don Jose join in on their return. The two perform a passionate duet before Carmen's three friends arrive and invite them outside. The group prepares to rob a passerby; Don Jose stabs the man and the women rob him. In the final scene, the girls gather at the bull fighting ring, awaiting the arrival of their hero the toreador. He greets them all, but is surprised by Carmen's indifference. Don Jose notices the looks and becomes jealous, threatening Carmen; in a fight to death, he overcomes Carmen and she is killed.

Mizuka Ueno and Roberto Bolle in 'L'Arlesienne'

The second Petit ballet to be performed tonight is L'Arlesienne, or The Girl from Arles. Performed to incidental music composed by Georges Bizet in 1872, the ballet premiered in 1974 and is based on a play by Alphonse Daudet. The 'intense' one-act ballet was created for Petit's company the Ballet National de Marseille. The ballet is set in Provence, France, and follows the young Frederi. On his wedding day, Frederi has become obsessed with a woman he once saw in the city of Arles. His love for this woman, real or phantom, impedes his love for his fiancee Vivette. Eventually driven insane, the end of the ballet has Frederi dive headlong through a window. The work can be read as a more modern interpretation of the ballet La Sylphide, in which a bridegroom is distracted from his fiancee by an unreachable forest sprite.

RNZB dancer Mayu Tanigaito as Carmen

Here's Roberto Bolle and Polina Semionova in the Carmen pas de deux at Teatro alla Scala:

And here's the Royal New Zealand Ballet rehearsing L'Arlesienne:

If you have a chance to see these wonderful ballets, don't miss out! Check out the Royal New Zealand Ballet's website for booking information:

- Selene

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