ENB’s farewell tribute to the legendary Roland Petit

Roland Petit’s Carmen with Le Jeune Homme et la Mort and L’Arlésienne : Dancers and orchestra of English National Ballet / Benjamin Pope. London Coliseum, London, 21.7.2011. (JPr)

ENB’s Carmen © Annabel Moeller

Having made plans to visit London to attend the last rehearsals of English National Ballet’s tribute triple-bill of Roland Petit’s work, France’s finest post-war choreographer lost his battle with leukaemia on 10 July: so a planned ‘tribute’ to this master of dance became a timely celebratory farewell.

Roland Petit stopped training at the Paris Opéra-Ballet at the ridiculously early age of 20 in 1944 to create his own works and soon afterwards founded his own company. The works English National Ballet performed spanned his most creative years – Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (1946), Carmen (1949) and L’Arlésienne (1974) – though of the 176 ballets he created around 100 are still regularly performed. He often worked with the most famous artists of his time – for instance Picasso, Cocteau and Kochno – and based on these three short ballets his style seems to have been inspired by the Gallic obsession with sex, cigarettes and death, distilled through his classical training, his experience of the cabaret world of Parisian nightspots such as the Moulin Rouge, and especially Hollywood films. Petit himself went to that movie capital in the 1950s and his emphasis on drama and the use of chairs in his ballets, as well as his Carmen steps designed for a long-limbed danseuse in a corset, must have had a profound effect on Bob Fosse, though I cannot immediately find a connection between the two.

In a note in the lavish printed programme Wayne Eagling, ENB’s artistic director, reminds the audience about Roland Petit and how ‘on the continent, and certainly in France, he is at least as well-known and respected as Ashton, MacMillan and Balanchine are here’. A sombre Mr Eagling appeared before the curtain at the start of the evening to say how what they were doing was now ‘tinged with sadness’ and how Petit’s widow – and former muse – Renée (Zizi) Jeanmaire was ‘here with us in spirit’. He expressed his gratitude to guest répétiteurs Luigi Bonino and Jean Philippe Halnaut for restaging Petit’s works ‘at a time of great personal sadness’ for them.

In these straightened economic times English National Ballet’s programming demands touring popular evenings such as Strictly Gershwin, so kudos is due to them for giving London audiences the chance to re-engage with these neglected theatrical treasures. The youngest of the three works, L’Arlesienne is a simple tale of a reluctant bridegroom who on the eve of his marriage continues to be obsessed with a ‘Girl from Arles’ (who we never see on stage). The music is by Georges Bizet and the initial large backdrop is a cornfield by Van Gogh. All are dressed in black and white and there is some ritualised folkloric dancing from a chorus line of happy wedding guests from which the distracted young man keeps breaking free. Finally he cannot be reconciled to his torment and leaps out of a window that is revealed on stage. The English National Ballet’s small corps danced their – seemingly Broadway-inspired symmetrical lines – with great spirit; Esteban Berlanga seemed suitably tormented as the reluctant groom and Erina Takahashi was poetic and pretty as the young girl who hopes to marry him without revealing enough of the inner strength I suspect all Petit’s main female characters demand.

Following a long interval came an engrossing 15 minute ballet, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, with Yonah Acosta, nephew of Carlos, in blue overalls as the ‘young man’ of the title. He stumbles around his Parisian garret while waiting for his mistress, throwing chairs about, as well as using them in what I must delicately describe as an erotic manner. He is a Jean Cocteau character in love with the wrong woman (again) and when she finally arrives – in a yellow dress with black gloves – she torments him and dares him to hang himself. When he does she returns in white and red with the mask of ‘Death’ and in an stunning cinematic coup de théâtre straight from 1940s’ Hollywood we see the skyline of Paris – as conceived by Georges Wakhévitch – across which she walks him away. This is danced to an intriguingly florid arrangement of Bach’s music. Anaïs Chalendard used her long extensions appropriately as the domineering femme fatale and had a good line in smirking cruelty. Yonah Acosta was a revelation. He will be promoted to Junior Soloist next season and should go far; his movement around the stage has a pantherine quality and he dances with great athleticism and a bravura style.

Following this there was another extended interval before Carmen which when it finally arrived was something of a disappointment given the big build up it had one way or the other. Petit rushes through what is, of course, a very familiar story – to equally familiar music by Bizet – as a disjointed set of tableaux involving tobacco girls, gypsies or a very camp Toreador that are just there as ensemble time-fillers for two highly-charge pas de deux: the very famous explicit duet in the bedroom, and the gripping climax as Carmen faces down Don José against a deadly insistent drumbeat. She kicks out at him repeatedly as he attacks her with a knife on which she is finally impaled like the bull getting the coup de grâce from a matador. Long-legged Begoña Cao, looked wonderful in that black corset and cropped wig made famous by Zizi Jeanmaire’s original 1949 performance but, for me, there was palpable lack of erotic chemistry between her and Fabian Reimair’s slightly wooden and extremely haughty Don José. Strangely my eyes were drawn more to Juan Rodríguez and Adela Ramírez as the spirited Lead Bandit and his girl. Once again the whole company danced, more often than not, with a smile, enthusiastic vigour and liveliness. They perhaps lacked the touch of sophistication and world-weariness – both here and earlier in the evening – that Petit’s choreography demands, but this is to be expected from a company of young dancers whose most experienced colleagues appear to have been given the night off.

In ballet the music is often too easily neglected and I give my final words in praise of the valiant Orchestra of English National Ballet and the wonderful conducting throughout the evening by Benjamin Pope, of both Bizet and Bach, that helped make this evening the outstanding tribute to Roland Petit it undoubtedly was.

Jim Pritchard