Remembering Zizi Jeanmaire, French Ballerina and Film Star

July 16, 2020

French ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire died peacefully at her Swiss home on July 17 at the age of 96, reported Valentine Petit, Jeanmaire’s daughter with choreographer Roland Petit (1924-2011).

One of the French dance world’s most iconic personalities, Jeanmaire was a trailblazer. A list of her numerous collaborators reads like a long “Who’s Who” of the art world: Yves Saint Laurent, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Jean Cocteau, Serge Gainsbourg and Marcel Marceau, to name a few.

She was accepted to the Paris Opéra Ballet School at the age of 9 and became Yvette Chauviré’s protégé, later earning a spot in the company’s corps de ballet. But she left France’s national opera house four years later, hungry for more audacious projects, and joined the Ballets de Monte-Carlo and Roland Petit’s fledgling company, the Ballet des Champs Élysées. After a year with the Ballets Russes de Colonel de Basil, she teamed up with Petit again in 1948, becoming danseuse étoile with his new Ballets de Paris troupe. She and the choreographer had been classmates at the Paris Opéra Ballet School and rose to stardom together, becoming a celebrity couple on and off stage.

Early in her career, Jeanmaire adopted a pixie haircut that became her signature look and caught the attention of fashion houses and Vogue magazine. Her chic, androgynous style set the tone for Petit’s Carmen in 1949, a sensual update of Prosper Mérimée’s novella transplanted to the port of Marseille in the south of France. Starring in the title role, her corset-clad Carmen became an international sensation beyond Paris. In New York, the ballet was performed at the Winter Garden Theatre for seven months, a rare honor on Broadway for a classical ballet company. Jeanmaire’s bold personality was pivotal in achieving Petit’s mission of updating narrative ballet to reflect contemporary themes and mores.

Hollywood soon came calling and a string of musical films ensued, featuring Jeanmaire as both actress and dancer. Her presence on the celluloid screen was important in providing Americans access to ballet during a time when most professional ballet companies in the United States were still young and limited to major cities.

In Hans Christian Andersen (Charles Vidor, 1952), she is simply credited as Jeanmaire, starring alongside Danny Kaye. The film reimagines the Danish storyteller’s celebrated tales through song and ballet in what became one of the year’s highest grossing films in North America. The mermaid ballet sequence, inspired by Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, was choreographed by Petit who also performed as her partner. In the film’s Ice Skating Ballet, Jeanmaire appeared with Erik Bruhn.

Jeanmaire went on to star as Gaby Duval in Anything Goes (Robert Lewis, 1956) alongside Bing Crosby and Mitzi Gaynor. Her two roles in the anthology ballet film Black Tights (Terrence Young, 1961) garnered critical acclaim. She also performed in Broadway runs of The Girl in Pink Tights and Can Can, as well as films back home in her native France, including a 1966 screen adaptation of Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort with Rudolf Nureyev.

In 1972, the performer’s original repertoire continued to expand when celebrated French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg wrote a musical revue for her, entitled Zizi, je t’aime! The performance was created for the Casino de Paris with choreography by Petit and costumes designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Three years later, Jeanmaire returned to the stage of the Paris Opéra Ballet to debut a new version of La Symphonie Fantastique.

By the early 1960s, Jeanmaire had also risen to stardom in France for her singing, recording multiple albums throughout her lifetime and working with some of France’s most popular lyricists. Her music hall routines were popular on television variety shows, where her jazzy choreography performed in black tights and heels became a staple. Her last tour and recordings date from 2000.

Her diverse array of projects resulted in a prolific career that will be remembered on both sides of the Atlantic.