Articles from Ballet2000

Farewell, Zizi

BALLET2000 is expressing its sadness at the passing of an artist who has often featured in this magazine, Zizi Jeanmaire, who died on 17 July 2020 at Tolochenaz in Switzerland, near Lausanne, where she had been living quietly for years. She was 96 years old.

In her day she was one of the most famous ballerinas in the world – and not only to audiences of ballet and artistic dance, but indeed to a much, much broader public. Jeanmaire began her career as a classical dancer at the Paris Opéra and then walked various other paths in life: she was the “supreme” muse and interpreter of her choreographer husband Roland Petit who impressed her unique image on the worlds of musical revues, films and TV, thus making her THE iconic French woman in the collective imagination.
Our most longstanding readers will remember the “Mes Rencontres” (My Meetings) series. They were written by Irène Lidova who was a ballet critic of historical importance, as well as mover and shaker who, among other things, “launched” Zizi Jeanmaire and Roland Petit in the immediate post-war period. In October 1996 Lidova dedicated one of her “Rencontres” on BALLET2000 to Zizi Jeanmaire.
We are reprinting the entire article here along with, as was usual Lidova’s column, a photo by Serge Lido.

I first met Zizi (who at the time was still called by her real name, Renée) at the Paris Opéra during the war. She was part of a “clique” of young ballet hopefuls, under the leadership of Serge Lifar. They were all under twenty and belonged to the anonymous “quadrilles” echelon of the corps de ballet. Lifar tried to promote them but kept being hindered by the ruthless hierarchy that reigned at the Opéra in those days. So his protégés, such as Renée Jeanmaire, Colette Marchand or Roland Petit, were just not getting noticed by the public; and yet their names had begun buzzing around among dance specialists, maybe because someone had seen them taking class with the great Russian masters who were teaching in Paris at the time.

I used to see Zizi Jeanmaire at Boris Kniaseff’s school or at Alexandre Volinine’s (he had been Anna Pavlova’s partner). At the Opéra, Zizi was fretting with impatience because she felt she was up to the main roles, but she also knew that long years of waiting lay ahead for her ...
With special permission from the theatre’s management, her school pal Roland Petit had the idea of putting on some dance shows for two with the young Janine Charrat. So Zizi decided to follow suit: together with a brilliant young dancer, Roger Fenonjois, and with the help of her teachers Kniaseff and Volinine, she presented a number of dance recitals, accompanied by an orchestra, first at the Salle Pleyel and later, in 1944, at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. The repertoire was suited to her joyous, bubbly and zesty personality: the Blue Bird pas de deux, excerpts from Coppélia and, especially, Arlequinade (“Harlequinade”). Thanks to these shows she began to make her breakthrough on the Parisian ballet scene.
After the Liberation she left the Opéra along with several other colleagues to throw herself into something new, and into the unknown. It was then that I myself was able to bring together a whole host of young talents who had grown up during the war years, and organise my “Dance Fridays” at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre. Zizi and Jean Babilée were my strengths. For the premiere of the season, in December 1944, Zizi danced the grand adagio from Sleeping Beauty partnered by Roland Petit; she was charming in her pink tutu, with her curls (plentiful at the time) adorned with flowers. I remember that it was very cold, because the theatre wasn’t yet heated; she was trembling and Serge Lido, who was lurking in the wings with his camera, almost had to push her onto the stage.
The famous “Ballets des Champs-Elysées” were born in October 1945 following that memorable season. Roland Petit was their exclusive choreographer, surrounded by a whole young generation of dancers. Nevertheless, Jeanmaire preferred to follow her maître Serge Lifar to Monte Carlo where he was forming a new company after his forced departure from the Opéra for political reasons. Partnered by Vladimir Skouratoff, for the first time Zizi had an important role created for her: Aubade, to music by Poulenc, in which Lifar imagined her as an operetta Diana, pitiless and seductive. But the company was soon dissolved, and Lifar returned to the Paris Opéra.
After a year with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes, where Boris Kniaseff had taken her, in 1948 she joined Roland Petit’s new company, “Ballets de Paris”. And then came the big turning point in her career: she cut her hair and became the Zizi we have known ever since: the place was London, the year was 1949, the ballet was Carmen. The whole world was conquered by her. She went to New York and Hollywood, and became Roland Petit’s muse and, later, his wife.
In the 1950s, during a temporary “crisis” with her choreographer, she used to call on me more often than usual: she felt lost and undecided about her future, but still always in love with ballet: “One day I’ll dance Giselle”, she said to me. But shortly afterwards, there she was as the star of music hall at the Casino de Paris where she danced and sang the famous Mon truc en plume created for her by Petit.
And yet she never failed to do her daily exercises at the barre, and even today her legendary legs and radiant smile seduce the public.
Irène Lidova
BALLET2000 n° 103, October1996