Roland Petit dies at 87; acclaimed choreographer

Acclaimed choreographer Roland Petit, whose creations dazzled stages from Paris to Hollywood and inspired dancers, writers and designers, has died. He was 87.

The Paris National Opera said Petit’s wife, Zizi Jeanmaire, informed them that the choreographer died Sunday in Geneva. The cause was not given.

Born in 1924 in Villemomble, France, Petit took his first dance steps at 9 at the Paris Opera’s School of Dance.

While opening several ballet companies in Paris after its liberation from the Nazis, as well as the Marseille ballet house, Petit maintained ties with Paris Opera, offering 11 creations, including “Notre Dame de Paris.”


His reputation grew well beyond France in the 1950s during a four-year stint in Hollywood, collaborating with Orson Welles in the 1953 ballet “The Lady in the Ice” and choreographing such film classics as 1952’s “Hans Christian Andersen” with Danny Kaye, 1955’s “Daddy Long Legs” with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron and 1956’s “Anything Goes” with Bing Crosby and Jeanmaire.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, paying tribute, said that some of Petit’s works brought together designers such as Yves Saint-Laurent for costumes and Picasso for décor. Writer and poet Jacques Prevert was also a participant. Notable pieces included “Carmen” or “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” (The Young Man and Death).

Petit choreographed for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, among other great dancers, during an eclectic career that saw him spend six months at the head of the Paris Opera in 1970, then move to the Casino de Paris for music hall creations until 1976. He then settled in Marseille and lent his name to the company in 1981, now known as National Ballet of Marseille-Roland Petit.

In 1998, he made a break, traveling the world to create new ballets or mount old works with the likes of the San Francisco Ballet, the Bolshoi in Moscow, La Scala in Milan, the Asami Maki Ballet of Tokyo and the National Ballet of China.

Petit is survived by his wife, Jeanmaire, a ballerina turned music hall performer who collaborated with her husband, and their daughter, Valentine.