Roland Petit has been away from New York for 22 years, but he hasn't changed a bit. An unregenerate master of dramatic effect in what is now an age of abstract dance, Mr. Petit let out the stops last night at the Uris Theater, where his Ballet National de Marseille made its American debut in the choreographer's 1979 full-evening ballet, "The Bat."
Mr. Petit has always posed as a problem. The touring London Festival Ballet and the Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit both played in the early 1950's in Paris. Alicia Markova floated like some other-earthly mist through the 19th-century forest of the English company's "Les Sylphides," while at a not too distant time and theater Colette Marchand belted out a song about being nude under her raincoat in Mr. Petit's "Ciné Bijou," a romp for such characters as "la star," "le gangster" and "le policeman." Both were ballets on point. Which was "ballet"? Is there life after Fokine, Balanchine or, for that matter, Béjart?
The answer, as provided by "The Bat," is yes, for those who love unabashed theatricality, fanciful Gallic chic and potent star personalities. Though "The Bat" is very loosely based on "Die Fledermaus," Douglas Gamley has caught Strauss's sheer melodic gaiety in his arrangement of the score. Guilio Colltellacci's late 19th-century Viennese decor and Franca Scuarciapino's costumes are frothily sumptuous. Overtones of the music hall glint most appropriately through this 1979 ballet, considering that the text for "Die Fledermaus" had its origins in French vaudeville and that Mr. Petit has long been influenced by the French music hall.
And what chances the plot gives Mr. Petit for a wry and insouciant look at love! Neglected by Johann, her husband, an upper-class Viennese housewife named Bella takes the advice of Ulric, a family friend, and follows her husband as he flies on bat-wings to the nightclubs and balls of Vienna. He falls in love with his wife, who appears to him in several alluring disguises, until she finally clips his wings with a providential pair of scissors and domestic bliss is once more restored.
There is the overriding matter, however, of her audiences' ongoing love affair with Zizi Jeanmaire, Mr. Petit's wife and the star of "The Bat." Miss Jeanmaire enters the stage in a fuzzy red wig that does not at all convince us of her domesticity. She pauses, all shameless, melting eyes as the audience cheers. Those sleek legs still bewitch. That slightly crooked, gamin smile still crooks. And that cap of sleek black hair, revealed as she turns vamp, still glitters. Miss Jeanmaire has been dancing for about 40 years now and, although her husband has choreographed judiciously for her here, she looks good for at least another 40.
Miss Jeanmaire is supported by the darkly handsome Denys Ganio, as Johann, and the deft Luigi Bonino as Ulric. On the evidence of "The Bat" the men are superior to the women in the eight-year-old Ballet National de Marseille, France's second national ballet company. And with his clean phrasing and abundant energy, Jean-Charles Gil is clearly the dancer to watch.
Mr. Petit has a way with theatrical images like Mr. Ganio's first, soaring flight over the rooftops of Paris. Or the pink brocade coach, complete with life-sized toy horse, which comes to whisk Miss Jeanmaire away and leaves with Mr. Ganio perched atop, his bat wings fluttering in the dim light. Or a love duet for the two, in which Mr. Ganio hangs upside down in the upper regions of a shadowy, mirrored ballroom.
Mr. Petit also concocts marvelous petits ballets or caddishly twitching mustaches, rolling eyes, hands eating at a dinner table and the flouncing skirt. A dance for three waiters, set to the score's most Offenbachian moments, is high-spirited and inventive fun, though it does resemble Leonide Massine's "Gaieté Parisienne." And Mr. Ganio gets off all manner of sleek turns, his long legs flashing, with fleet footwork tumbling out of Mr. Bonino in a number of wonderfully silly disguises.
The choreographer does make an odd theatrical misstep with a recorded aria for Mr. Ganio in the jail scene. But with the exception of a final, simple pas de deux in which Mr. Ganio makes Miss Jeanmaire soar through the air in a kind of metaphor for love, it is the choreography that is the thinnest part of the evening. It is unlikely that star turns from "The Bat" will ever end up on, say, a Ballet Theater gala program. But there are enough of those in the world today, and only one Roland Petit.
Presented by James M. Nederlander, the company will be at the Uris for five weeks, performing "The Bat," "Coppelia" and "Marcel Proust Remembered."