But in the 1960s, Petit’s theatrical flamboyance and sexual provocation on stage were less well received. When he created a version of “Pelléas et Mélisande” for Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev in 1969, the critics were not kind. “Loyalty is a great virtue, but the Royal Ballet’s loyalty to French choreographer Roland Petit is more like the former sailor’s loyalty to his albatross,” Clive Barnes wrote in a New York Times review, later criticizing ” the fantastic banality of the choreography which seems to consider banality as a new lifestyle.
Fonteyn’s belief in Petit’s talent may well come from her experience creating a role in her 1948 “Desmoiselles de la Nuit”, which she performs with her company in Paris. In this role, said Verdy, Fonteyn showed a hitherto unsuspected sensuality, a quality that Petit knew how to evoke in his ballerinas.
“He was way ahead of his time in creating really strong female characters,” Rojo said. “The shameless sexuality on stage was shocking at the time.”
After a stay in Hollywood, where he choreographed several films in the early 1950s (including “Hans Christian Andersen”, “The Glass Slipper” and “Daddy Long Legs”), Petit returned to France. He bought the Casino de Paris, directed reviews for his wife, made a brief stint in 1970 as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, then became founding director of the Ballet de Marseille in 1972, where he remained until a controversial separation in 1998..
During these years, he created a prodigious number of ballets (his total production is around 170 pieces), often from literary sources. But after withdrawing the rights to his dances from the Marseille company, most of them disappeared from the scene.
“If the work isn’t seen, other art directors don’t have a chance to think, ‘I would like this piece for my business,’ said Ariane Dollfus, a French journalist who writes a biography of Jeanmaire. “It’s a shame because many are very good.”