Zizi Jeanmaire, French Star of Ballet, Cabaret and Film, Dies at 96


Zizi Jeanmaire, the ballerina, cabaret singer and actress whose gamine haircut, corseted costume and charismatic, erotic performance made an indelible impression in the 1949 ballet “Carmen,” died on July 17 at her home in Tolochenaz, Switzerland, overlooking Lake Geneva. She was 96.

Her daughter, Valentine Petit, confirmed the death.

Over the course of a six-decade career, Ms. Jeanmaire reinvented herself continuously, beginning as a classical dancer whose greatest roles were choreographed by her husband, Roland Petit, and who danced with Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, among other illustrious names.

“Carmen,” which Petit created in London before it moved to Broadway, shocked audiences with its onstage smoking and frank sensuality, and made stars of both Petit and Ms. Jeanmaire.

Soon after, when Petit was planning a new ballet, “La Croqueuse de Diamants,” featuring songs with lyrics by Raymond Queneau, Ms. Jeanmaire quietly worked on her singing, then won the role by displaying her sultry voice in the title song.

After that ballet went on to Broadway and a U.S. tour, the Hollywood producer Howard Hughes offered Ms. Jeanmaire a movie contract. Samuel Goldwyn produced her first film, “Hans Christian Andersen,” and it was he who suggested that she change her name from Renée to the more alluring “Zizi,” a childhood nickname. She danced with Petit and Eric Bruhn in that film.

She went on to dance alongside Bing Crosby in the movie revival of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”; on Broadway in “The Girl in Pink Tights” and “Can-Can”; and in a number of French films (“Folies Bergère,” “Charmant Garcons,” “Guingette”).

In 1981, Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times that Ms. Jeanmaire’s appearance in the lead role of Pistache in Cole Porter’s “Can-Can” was the show’s “one authentic link to the world it wishes to celebrate.”

“This pixieish performer, with her lacquered hair, gravelly voice and flat-out music-hall delivery, need but appear to transport us to the Folies Bergère,” Mr. Rich wrote.

Ms. Jeanmaire established her presence as a cabaret artist at the Alhambra Theater in Paris in 1961. In the song “Mon Truc en Plumes,” (“My Thing in Feathers’), which would become her signature number, she emerged in a tight sequined top and sheer tights (designed by Yves Saint Laurent, a close friend), accompanied by a bevy of young men fanning her with huge pink feathers. Famous French singers and writers — Marcel Aymé, Guy Béart, Boris Vian, Barbara and Serge Gainsbourg — wrote songs for her (Gainsbourg wrote an entire revue for her, “Zizi, Je t’aime”), and she would make almost 30 albums over her career.

Ms. Jeanmaire continued to perform in revues created for her by Petit into her 70s. She also appeared in his ballets, notably starring in a 1966 film of “Le Jeune homme et la mort,” with Nureyev; and with Mr. Baryshnikov in a 1980 television film of “Carmen.”

She was immortalized in 1969 by the hit song “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” in which Peter Sarstedt sang of his mystery heroine, “You talk like Marlene Dietrich, and you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire.”

Renée Marcelle Jeanmaire was born in Paris on April 29, 1924, the only child of Marcel Jeanmaire and Olga Brunus. Her first glimpse of ballet was in the dance sequence of Charles Gounod’s opera “Romeo and Juliet.” Enchanted by the show, she persuaded her parents to let her enroll at the Paris Opera Ballet school. She was 9, the same age as her classmate Roland Petit. “Our eyes crossed; I fell for him,” she said in a 2008 interview with Paris Match.

At the school, Ms. Jeanmaire was mentored by the acclaimed ballerina Yvette Chauviré, who introduced her to the teacher Boris Kniaseff, who would become a significant presence throughout her career. She was accepted into Paris Opera Ballet in 1940, at 15, as was Petit, and although Paris was occupied by Nazi Germany, the opera dancers continued to practice and perform. (The director, Serge Lifar, welcomed high-ranking German officers to the theater and was accused of collaboration after the war.)

Although she attracted favorable attention in her early years with the company, Ms. Jeanmaire was unhappy with the roles she was given and left at 20. Petit, who wanted to choreograph and direct his own company, followed soon after.

In 1944, Ms. Jeanmaire joined the troupes Ballets de Monte Carlo and De Basil’s Ballets Russes, and in 1948, Petit asked her to join his company, Les Ballets de Paris. Still in love with him, she was determined that he would create a ballet for her. “It was thanks to this role that I could express my personality as a dancer,” she told the newspaper Le Monde in 2006. “In a way, I discovered myself through performing it.”

But her relationship with Petit remained ambiguous until they reunited after their respective stints in Hollywood and on Broadway; they married in 1954. The next year, while Petit was choreographing “Daddy Long Legs” for Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, Ms. Jeanmaire gave birth to her daughter, Valentine Petit, her only immediate survivor.

Over the next two decades, Petit created numerous revues for his wife, buying the Casino de Paris in 1970 as a showcase. She became a huge star in France, celebrated for her flamboyance, long-legged androgynous sexiness and husky-voiced charm, and the couple were a glamorous, sought-after presence on the French cultural scene. “Without her,” the French poet Louis Aragon is reported to have said, “Paris would not be Paris.”

Ms. Jeanmaire continued to appear on the ballet stage, performing in Petit’s “Symphonie Fantastique” at the Paris Opera in 1975 and in other works created for the Ballet de Marseilles, which Petit directed from 1972 until 1998. (He died in 2011.)

Her final performances were in 2000, in the amphitheater of the Bastille Opera in Paris, featuring songs written by her daughter, who has had her own career as a singer and songwriter.

“My only tragedy,” Ms. Jeanmaire told Le Figaro, “would be to no longer be able to perform.”

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