The English National Ballet’s Tribute to Roland Petit

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Roland Petit’s Carmen with the English National Ballet. Photo: Patrick Baldwin.

Roland Petit rehearses Carmen in 1949.

Roland Petit
English National Ballet
London Coliseum

Carmen – Anaïs Chalendard
Don José – Daniel Kraus

Vivette – Erina Takahashi
Frédéri – Esteban Berlanga

Le Jeune Homme et la Mort
The Young Man – Anton Lukovkin
Death – Jia Zhang

Stilettos, ready! To keep the audience entertained, the postwar French choreographer Roland Petit resorted to high jinks, low jinks, whatever jinks he could summon. He’s a one-man, nonstop coup de theatre. Petit’s women, long-legged and aloof, aren’t asked to be graceful so much as dangerous and strange: they slither, prance and stamp, opening and closing their knees in insectoid twitches and mechanical jerks. It’s as if they are perched on high-heeled toes. The men must earn advanced degrees in acrobatics (with post-graduate liniment for their abused muscles) to perform Petit’s Cirque de Soleil cartwheels, tumbling, and feats of strength (such as forming a human bridge for the ballerina to stretch out on — at least she doesn’t walk over it in stilettos). These antics were on display in a triple bill mounted by the ever-ebullient English National Ballet, the romping younger sibling of the Royal Ballet, which soberly covets its right of primogeniture.

First up we had l’Arlésienne (1974), a very stylized late work set to Bizet’s familiar suites of incidental music. It eschews Petit’s signature cigarette smoking on stage and most of his Left Bank attitude, to tell the story of a young provincial couple celebrating their betrothal with other villagers (a prim Sunday-go-to-meeting reprise of Stravinsky’s Les noces), featuring linked group movements reminiscent of folk dances as performed by marionettes. The groom is obsessed, however, with a girl from Arles, the only connection to Bizet’s score, and although we never see her or even her likeness, he goes crazy on his wedding night. Here we are in Petit’s comfort zone of the morbidly erotic, a tone that pervades the entire program. After an energetically anguished solo (which doesn’t communicate much real feeling, however) the groom hurls himself out the bedroom window to his death, reversing the once sensational entry that the soloist makes in Fokine’s Specctre de la rose.

Tormented young men and the women who incite their despair was a theme we couldn’t escape, and its apotheosis was the second ballet, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (The Young Man and Death) from 1946, which Mikhail Baryshnikov excerpted as a physical tour de force in the 1985 movie White Nights. There’s a sketchy story attributed to Jean Cocteau, about an artist hurling himself around a Parisian garret; this involves climbing over the furniture in eye-popping athletic ways before his lover (icy Jia Zhang) enters in black gloves and yellow sheath dress to mock his despair, and share a cigarette. She goads him to hang himself, and the whole thing is showmanship of a quite breathtaking kind. We get the noose, a worrisome stunt as the artist hangs overhead for long moments, and a wonderful satiric coup as his ghost, accompanied by the girlfriend, now wearing a death’s head mask, departs over the rooftops of Paris with a blinking Citroën sign in the distance.

At my matinee we saw the superb Anton Lukovkin, a lithe, blond junior soloist with ENB, as the Young Man. But the capital was brought to its knees on Friday night when another fiery Russian dancer, Ivan Vasiliev, stepped in. He performed for free as a personal tribute to Petit, who had died just the week before, age 87. As stupendous as Vasiliev no doubt was — he must be, as one daily critic said, “the hottest male dancer on the planet” (are there extraterrestrial competitors?), Lukovkin hurled his body into the role heroically.

Looking up Petit’s career, I found that he choreographed 176 ballets, of which 100 are still performed. He had classical training but also first-hand experience of Parisian cabaret life, and he was glued to Hollywood movies. All of this shows. In France he is taken as seriously, we are told, as Ashton, MacMillan, and Balanchine — the last comparison must be a stretch even for Francocentrists, which is to say, the whole of France.

The two openers are short works, while the third, Petit’s version of Carmen (1949) as a gauche, violent carnival, lasts 45 minutes. It shows no reverence for the original — not necessarily a bad thing — and works hard to keep us riveted. Don José looks like Escamillo this time around, with brillantined hair and a haughty chin, while the toreador, who has only one brief solo, wears white face like Marcel Marceau. We get a bedroom scene between Don José and Carmen, not for the purpose of giving her a rose but, predictably, for a post-coital smoke. It’s easy to lampoon Petit, yet you come away feeling that he was one of a kind, as Parisian as Poulenc, just as sophisticated but just as limited, too.

I felt a pang for the English Ballet company dancers, relegated to second-place in stories that focus so completely on two lovers. But everyone gets to strut stylishly in Carmen, the heroine most of all in her ruffled black corset and endless legs; all of the young troupe are appealing, even though to tell the truth, none of the men seemed quite erotic or dangerous enough. Bohemian chic hasn’t been an English style since the long-gone days of Bloomsbury, and back then it was done in wool sweaters.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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