Are Roland Petit’s productions mounted much today in Paris? He was a major force in French ballet for several decades. He produced, danced and choreographed. His wife, Zizi Jeanmaire, was a prima ballerina for whom he created some his most popular ballets. Petit was respected, successful and tireless. He choreographed the ballets in four Hollywood musicals, including Daddy Long Legs for Leslie Caron and Hans Christian Andersen for Zizi Jeanmaire.
With Black Tights (1961), Petit gives us four of his ballets, all presented on stage but with a fluid use of cameras. The stage sets are just that, stage sets; there is no illusion that we are watching anything cinematic. Still, the sets are generous, the costumes are colorful and the dancing is first class. Maurice Chevalier tells us a bit of the stories, all with his special worldly charm.
What distinguishes this record of an influential impresario, choreographer and dancer (Petit dances in three of the four ballets), is the casting of the lead ballerinas. Zizi Jeanmaire stars in the first and last sequences, as the gold digger in La Croqueuse de Diamants (with many mecs and plenty of grisby), and as Carmen in Carmen. Moira Shearer dances Roxanne in Cyrano. Cyd Charisse dances the widow in Deuill en 24 heures.
Jeanmaire is vivid and sexy. Moira Shearer poignant and beautiful. Charisse is precise. Jeanmaire and Shearer have the star presence that enables them to dominate the stage when they dance.
But are these ballets in any way memorable? With the possible exception of Carmen, I don’t think so. Even with Carmen, the passion and pleasure come from Jeanmaire and not from the choreography. I’m no connoisseur of ballet but I’ve seen my share of wonderful dancers and productions, most notably Galina Ulanova in Giselle, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev) and John Cranko’s version of the same with the Stuttgart Ballet. I enjoy Balanchine as well as Bourne, but I don’t know Petipa from prunes. I’m one of those who know what they like. For me, Petit’s work in Black Tights (not to mention his Hollywood work) seems dated. I enjoy ballet on stage or on video, but I didn’t particularly enjoy Black Tights…except for Jeanmaire and Shearer. They are well worth watching.
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