FEAR OF flying kept France's Roland Petit from visiting this country for more than two decades (he conquered the phobia and returned in 1980), but he's never been scared of soaring artistically.
His work is firmly rooted in classicism, but the personal trademarks of his choreography are something else again: unabashed eroticism, flamboyant theatrics, ambitious literary subjects and a pungency harvested from his work in cabarets, musicals and movies. These traits have also led to Petit's reputation as the "most French" choreographer of modern times.
"My ballets are French," Petit says, "in the way that Jerome Robbins' 'Fancy Free' is American. In America, if you see a ballet in a musical comedy, eveyone thinks it's perfectly natural. But here in France, if I do a ballet in a musical, they all say, oh, it's so Paris, so chic, so champagne."
The same insignia will be apparent in the programs he'll bring to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week and next, when his Ballet National de Marseille makes its Washington debut with works based on the writings of Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust and Alfonse Daudet, among others. But if his ballets are somehow drenched in Gallic "national character" (if there be such a thing), the Petit style is far more the emanation of a piquant individuality.
People who have never seen a ballet may still be acquainted with Petit's work through a number of Hollywood films, starting with "Hans Christian Andersen" in 1952, with Danny Kaye and Jeanmaire (Petit choreographed and also performed in it). In 1955, he worked with Fred Astaire on "Daddy Long Legs."
The Kennedy Center programs emphasize Petit's strong literary inclinations, as well as his obsession with the theme of thwarted or unrequited love. One of the two full-length works, "Marcel Proust Remembered (Les Intermettences du Coeur)" is inspired by Proust's celebrated magnum opus, "Remembrance of Things Past," but Petit says you needn't have read it to appreciate what's on stage.
"This is a ballet of perfumes, of flavors," he says. "What little story there is, is a pretext; what's behind it is almost abstract." The ballet, choreographed in 1974, impressionistically traces a range of themes--as Petit put it in a program note, " . . . passionate themes . . . themes that haunted the author cruelly . . . the melancholy of life . . . human and worldly vanities . . . the absurdities and the vices that plague the world . . . the sweetness of young love but with the particular anguish that jealousy brings . . . obsession with the past . . . that special form of torture in the idea that to be loved means to do away with every chance of being happy--those themes along with all the forbidden subjects that Proust was among the first to speak about: inversion, homosexuality, sadomasochism--the whole range of erotic tastes that are a part of the human picture and that Proust identifies in the word--as he uses it--'Inferno.' "
Petit himself never got around to reading the Proust novel until he was 40. "I tried it when I was younger, but couldn't make it through," he says. One winter he was housebound by below-zero temperatures, and he devoured the whole multivolume work in a month. "I fell in love with it, it's the bible of contemporary sensibility. War, peace, everything is in Proust, racial problems, sex, everything. After I read it, I wanted much to do a ballet about it, but I didn't know how. Then I ran across an excellent biography of Proust, which describes in precise detail the music Proust loved throughout his life--this was my key; I used exactly these pieces of music, from Beethoven, Debussy, Faure', Franck, Saint-Sae ns, Reynaldo Hahn and Wagner, each corresponding to a period in Proust's life, though it was some job putting it together."
Tuesday's opening night bill brings the American premiere of Petit's full-length "Notre-Dame de Paris," created in 1965 to a commissioned score by composer Maurice Jarre. The production has sets by Rene Allio and costumes by Yves Saint Laurent--the first costumes designed for the stage by the noted couturier and a reflection of Petit's habitual concern with the visual aspects of staging. The first cast will feature company principal Dominique Khalfouni, a former star of the Paris Opera Ballet, as the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, and guest artist Richard Cragun, of the Stuttgart Ballet, as Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Here again, Petit says it isn't necessary to rush back to the voluminous Hugo tome if your memory of the plot is rusty. "The audience really needs no familiarity with the book," he says. "It is my belief that in a ballet the dancing and the music must communicate directly with the audience. The story, in any case, is very simple in outline, and if the performance is alive, it will touch the spectators whether or not they have read the novel." PETIT, 59, studied dancing at the school of the Paris Opera Ballet, joined the company at the age of 16 and performed with it for five years. In 1945 he left to establish the innovative Ballets de Champs-Elysees, the launching pad for the careers of such notable French dancers as Leslie Caron, Jean Babilee, Janine Charrat and Colette Marchand. Petit founded the Ballets de Paris in 1948--this was the company that premiered "Carmen,"his best known work--with Jeanmaire the following year and then toured this country.
In the '50s and '60s, Petit worked in Hollywood and on Broadway, as well as in French films and television, while also creating ballets as an independent choregrapher for numerous troupes in Europe and elsewhere. He also owned and managed the Casino de Paris for a period in the early '70s.
Petit has especially vivid memories of his experience working on "Daddy Long Legs," which paired Astaire with Leslie Caron, whose ballet career was launched by Petit. "I saw Astaire's films with Ginger Rogers as a child," he recalled. "I'd go to the same picture two or three times a day--it's how I learned English. I met him many years later and we became friends, but when he said, 'You have to help me, I need you to work with me,' I couldn't believe it, I told him, 'You make me blush.' I realized he knew so much more than me I wasn't sure how I could be helpful. He wanted me to do not only ballets for Caron but also solo numbers for him. I told him, 'I'm so proud that you've asked me, but you can manage without me, it's a different kind of dance.' We ended up working side by side; I watched him building his numbers and it was astonishing, I learned so much."
In 1972 Petit was invited to form and direct a major classical ballet troupe in Marseille--the birthplace of Marius Petipa and Maurice Bejart. The company has since grown to international stature, with tours of the Soviet Union, Japan and the United States, as well as continental Europe. The term "National" became part of the company name three years ago, when Petit went to French president Giscard d'Estaing and persuaded him to add a national subsidy to the provincial subvention the troupe had existed on until then. PETIT ANSWERED the phone at his home in Marseille with a tone of urgency . . . "I am alone in the house and I just started to cook omething and it's going to burn, so I ask you, just two minutes, please," he said. Two minutes later, precisement, culinary anxieties laid to rest, he resumed talking.
"I feel very much at home in America, I have spent much time there. The first time was when I brought my version of 'Carmen' to the Winter Garden theater on Broadway--it was such a tremendous success, we toured over and over again, even in one-night stands. A couple of seasons ago, I was in Washington, where I had not been for many years, to assist in the staging of 'Carmen' by American Ballet Theatre. I have a fine friendship with ABT artistic director Misha Baryshnikov, and a great admiration and affection for him. But I wasn't very pleased about the 'Carmen'; I didn't think it was fair to produce it in such a short rehearsal period. It looked like just another ballet.
"To build a ballet like this properly, to have the dancers really get to know one another, to collaborate, takes time--we had only one week in Washington. It was terribly cold, I didn't get to see much of the city, just the Watergate Hotel and the Kennedy Center. But that Opera House, that is absolutely fantastic--I'd like to have the mayor of Marseille come to see it with me. In Marseille we perform in a lovely, '30s opera house, with architecture along the lines of an English music hall, but the stage is so small. I've designed my big ballets for houses on the scale of the Met and the Kennedy Center; in Marseille I can only use half the sets."
"Carmen," created in 1949 (the U.S.tour began the same year), originally starred Petit himself and the dancer who was to become his wife, Renee (Zizi) Jeanmaire, whose sizzling presence in the title role had much to do with the production's triumph. It has since become an international vehicle for ballerinas and is undoubtedly Petit's best known work. THE KENNEDY Center programs include a mixed repertory bill of three shorter ballets by Petit, including "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort," his most widely seen work beside "Carmen." It's a pas de deux set to Bach's C Minor Passacaglia, depicting a young man who hangs himself after rejection by the woman of his dreams and is then carried off by Death, in the guise of his beloved. The ballet, created in 1946 after an idea by Jean Cocteau (who called it a "silent play where I try to give gestures the dimension of words and screams") conferred fame on its first male interpreter, Jean Babilee, whose part has been assayed since by such dancers as Rudolf Nureyev and Baryshnikov.
A second ballet on the mixed bill is "Soire'e de Debussy," an abstraction to a me'lange of Debussy scores, both for piano and orchestra, with sets by Giulio Coltellacci based on Monet's "Waterlily" paintings. The third ballet, "L'Arlesienne," to Bizet's music, was inspired by Alphonse Daudet's story of that name. "It's such a well-known story in France," Petit will tell you, "that the word 'arlesienne' has come into the language to mean a woman one desires but who is unattainable, and that is what the ballet is about." Both "L'Arlessienne" and "Soire'e de Debussy" will have their U.S. premieres at the Kennedy Center.
Beside Richard Cragun, another guest artist for the Kennedy Center performances will be France's newest male Wunderkind, 24-year-old Patrick Dupond, a gold medalist at Varna in 1976, who had his first prominent solo role that same year in Petit's ballet on Emile Zola's "Nana."