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Zizi Jeanmaire: Not Giselle but Carmen | reviews, news & interviews

Zizi Jeanmaire: Not Giselle but Carmen

Zizi Jeanmaire: Not Giselle but Carmen

ARCHIVE Daily Telegraph, 21 Sep 1998: Zizi Jeanmaire wowed Sixties London. She tells Ismene Brown she has no need for nostalgia

SHE was the most chic Sixties doll that ever walked the streets, and all Britain enumerated her qualities when Peter Sarstedt's haunting pop-song hit the charts in 1969. "You talk like Marlene Dietrich, And you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire. Your clothes are all made by Balmain, And there's diamonds and pearls in your hair. But where do you go to, my lovely?..."

In such a song, Margot Fonteyn would not have been a groovy reference. Zizi Jeanmaire was another matter. Not for her the pale suffering virgin; she was a ballerina the liberated chick could go for. Wearing a corset as black and short as her hair, snapping her pink legs, seductive, gamine and quintessentially French, she was not Giselle but Carmen.

The 25-year-old Jeanmaire made a sensational impact when Roland Petit's ballet Carmen premiered in London in 1949. A film made in 1960 still transmits the electricity of Jeanmaire's performance as as she grapples with Don José, played by Petit.

Petit_Jeanmaire_Paris_Match_coverYet more extraordinary is their 65-year-old relationship - one that began when they met as nine-year-olds at the Paris Opera Ballet school. They married 44 years ago, and they are still visibly in love.

You can see it in Zizi, Je t'aime, a BBC Omnibus film broadcast tonight. It celebrates France's most glamorous ballet team; it tells how one of the most revolutionary ballets of the century was made; it is also a phenomenal love story - a love story almost ruined by Margot Fonteyn.

Today Zizi Jeanmaire is 74, and when I met her at her apartment on a wooded hill in Geneva last week, she was graciously discreet about those old days in 1947 when Britain's great ballerina arrived to work on a new ballet with Petit. Though Mischa Scorer's film is equally veiled, Fonteyn's passion for Petit was revealed in Julie Kavanagh's biography of Fonteyn's mentor, Frederick Ashton.

"Well, yes, I was jealous, because I loved him already," said Jeanmaire, in her rich French accent. "He was taking care of her very much, and she liked him very much." (So much, according to Kavanagh, that Fonteyn was persuaded by him to have a nose-job, which had to be redone back in England.)

Fonteyn was 28, Zizi 23, but Zizi was determined to keep her man. "It's because of that that afterwards I told him, 'We go to London, and I want a creation for me. Otherwise, I will leave.' He said, 'Ok ok, I will see what I can do'." The result was Carmen, hot, young, instantly accessible, and a far cry from the genteel, noble love of classical ballet.

The tutu is très beau, I love it, but I don't think my destiny was that kind of thing, Giselle, Sylphides

In London, following the pearly triumph of Fonteyn and the young Sadler's Wells Ballet in the grand new Sleeping Beauty at Covent Garden, the French production was a succès fou. Watching the film clip of the bedroom scene you can imagine why Ashton, though a finer choreographer, fell into a sulk, worrying that he was out of date.

"My 'usband always does big roles for ballerinas," said Jeanmaire serenely. "Danseuses who have something to express, they love what he does, because he goes down into their personality." She has taught her role to others of the era's stars, including Natalia Makarova and Altynai Asylmuratova.

Renée Jeanmaire (the Zizi came later) trained at the Paris Opera Ballet, the protégée of France's finest classical ballerina Yvette Chauviré, but cut of a different temperamental cloth. At 18, the war newly over, she quit to join the post-Diaghilev Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo, where she danced Les Sylphides, "but it was not my cup of tea." It was her old flame, the innovative Roland Petit, whose ballets she envied.

"What I dreamed of was what 'appened to me in London! The tutu is très beau, I love it, but I don't think my destiny was that kind of thing, Giselle, Sylphides. If you discover someone who can take something out of your personality, then of course you follow in that line. Maybe my 'usband did a bit of Pygmalion on me. I was looking for that, we have the same taste."

Given Carmen's faithless character, what could Jeanmaire - with her rocklike fidelity - possibly have in common with her, I wondered. Jeanmaire, a tiny, wiry figure, shot me a very French look. "I am not romantique - my temperament is bouillante, boiling hot. And Carmen is a story of passion."

She did not stop having cause for occasional anxiety. Petit did not make that many of his ballets on her - this was not an exclusive creative arrangement. Indeed, even after they married in 1954, and toured Petit's Ballets de Paris to Hollywood, Jeanmaire had to check out the dames her husband was flirting with, Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor. When Petit choreographed Daddy Long Legs for Fred Astaire it was a young Zizi lookalike who got the lead. "Leslie Caron danced with Astaire in the picture. I regret it very much; I would have loved to do it."

Zizi_posterJeanmaire zigzagged between ballet and cabaret, where Petit, ever the showman, choreographed increasingly glitzy shows around her as well as ballets. She was Zizi, the cabaret superstar. She sang, danced, was stroked by men with large pink feathers. She also danced the lead in a ballet judged by some to be Petit's claim to greatness: Le Jeune homme et la mort, in which she was the small, lethal figure of death.

"In Paris they said, oh là là, a classical choreographer who is doing musicals. But it depends how you do it. In America Balanchine and Robbins did musicals. For me Astaire was a classic, Cole Porter was a classic. I can hear one night Mozart and the day after Cole Porter, and what difference is there? I have goose-pimples the same for both."

Their daughter, Valentine, was born in 1955, and the couple's ascent continued. Petit directed, briefly, the Paris Opera Ballet, then, for 26 years, the Ballet de Marseille. He continues to be in demand, particularly now at the Kirov.

But not Britain. He made two ballets in the Sixties at the Royal Ballet for their close friends Fonteyn and Nureyev, but Sir John Drummond's view of him as "more clever than important, more entertaining than significant" appears to be the general British view.

Jeanmaire is cross about this, and longs for them to complete the circle by returning successfully to London where their world fame was born. But she rarely looks back at the Carmen days. "I don't have nostalgia. Sometimes I say, if I could live again the premiere of Carmen it would be marvellous. But it's done, and it was marvellous, and I was so lucky. As long as my husband tells me continue, advance, I have no need of nostalgia."

So are they really still in love, then? "Oh-h-h," she draws out the syllable in that gently reproving French way, "you can't make a long life together like this without having a true affection. It is impossible to live together if you are not in love."

Watch Zizi Jeanmaire perform one of her most famous numbers 'Mon Truc en plumes' in the 1960s

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