|How to Jolt an Audience: Roland Petit talks about Goethe, Fred Astaire and what's missing from the dance world today Edition: Newsweek International Section: Society and the Arts Subsection: BALLET |
Roland Petit electrified the dance world in 1945 at the age of 20 when he took his father's savings and launched the Ballet des Champs- Elysees in Paris. The company starred a teenage Leslie Caron and featured sets by Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso and costumes by Christian Berard. Today, at 75, Petit is still jolting audiences with new creations. His latest, "Clavigo," Goethe's 1774 story of a playboy who breaks a young girl's heart and endures her brother's wrath, premiered at the Palais Garnier in Paris last month. The ever-spry Petit took a break from a stage-lighting session to speak with NEWSWEEK's Dana Thomas. Excerpts:
THOMAS: Why "Clavigo"?
PETIT: I wanted to do a story that would carry me away. "Clavigo" is Faust, the first piece written by Goethe, when he was 25 years old. It's a strong theme, one of the greatest of all time, with God, Lucifer, the planets--it's amazing. I grabbed hold of it, and immediately thought of using paintings of the period and Beethoven. But then I thought, "That's impossible. It will feel so old and musty. I must do something more contemporary."
I called Gabriel Yared, who won the Oscar for his score for "The English Patient," and he said, "Great!" Then I thought, "Who should I get for the decor?" I hired Jean-Michel Wilmotte [interior architect for the Louvre's new Richelieu wing and shopping mall], told him the story, and the first thing he presented was pyramids. I said, "Jean- Michel, you are a great architect, but now you must think of decor. You must construct absolutely nothing." And he did. It's not fashionable, it's not old, it's just there, and it's perfect.
Aren't you afraid that Goethe will scare away younger audiences?
Look, you can't think that way. That would mean you can't play Shakespeare either. It's the 250th anniversary of Goethe's birth, and specialists have held conferences on him all over the world. Come on, everyone knows Goethe.
You do think about attracting young people to the ballet, right?
About 25 years ago, my daughter--she was 10 or so then--came to me and said, "You must listen to this record and do a ballet with it." It was Pink Floyd. I went to London and [they agreed] to do this ballet with me. They came onstage and played. But that music was complex; it was a work of art. It's not the same today. Now it's just noise. Today you can give young people anything and they'll ingest it. From time to time, we have very beautiful things, but most of it's like McDonald's. Indigestible.
What is contemporary dance then?
For me, it's classic ballet mixed with what we see in the street. With inspirations from everywhere and the language of the moment. But it must be intelligent and timeless. Like Broadway back in the '40s and '50s: Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Cole Porter. We walked out of the theater with songs for our entire life. It wasn't fantastic because it was refined or seductive, but because it knocked you out.
Who, in your opinion, created great dance?
Nijinsky, Nijinska, Fokine, Balanchine, Martha Graham, Pina Bausch. In a fashion, Jerome Robbins. Oh, and Fred Astaire. I worked with [him] on "Daddy Long Legs," and I was thrilled because for me, he was God. I learned English as a child going to see his films. I would spend the whole day watching them.
Fred Astaire was sublime in flesh and bone. He worked little bit by little bit, until it was perfect, and then he would do the whole number. And when he would film, he'd do the whole number on the set- -it was not cut. Finally I said, "I can say nothing because there is nothing I can teach you. But I'd like to stay and watch." I stayed six months and I learned so much. Today, in all of my choreography, you will see Fred Astaire walking through.
What's the state of dance today?
There's a true problem. I still teach children to dance on point. But there is no choreography to use this technique onstage. No one has that language anymore; they don't know how to do it. They are too busy doing ballets in bare feet. Why bare feet? To be modern? That's not modern. Modern is when it's good.
But Mikhail Baryshnikov choreographs and dances barefoot.
That's age. I've known Misha since he arrived from Russia. I said, "You can put a chair on the stage, you sit on the chair, we open the curtains, you stay like that and everyone will go crazy over you." It's true! He was a veritable genius. It's too bad that he doesn' t do better choreography. It's weak--very weak--compared to his talent.
What's the future of ballet?
I think it depends on the chance of finding good choreographers. If there are good choreographers ballet can make progress. That's the hardest part. We haven't done half of what we could do. Because they aren't there right now, that's for sure.
Author not available, How to Jolt an Audience. Newsweek International, 11-22-1999, pp 91.