It’s time again to pay tribute to the dancers that delight us when we watch our favorite ballets. Learn about these fascinating dancers:
1. Roland Petit
The first dancer on our list also worked as a choreographer and director. Born in Villemomble which is a suburban community near Paris. Petit’s early training came at the Paris Opéra Ballet where he soon began to make a name for himself in the world of the dance. He trained under Gustave Ricaux and Serge Lifar, a French dancer and choreographer.
By 1940 Petit became a member of the corps de ballet with the Paris Opéra. Five years later he founded his own ballet company, the Ballets des Champs-Élysées and then, in 1948, he started another company in conjunction with the Théâtre Marigny called Ballets de Paris. Petit’s wife and renowned ballerina, ZIzi Jeanmaire, was set as principle dancer for the latter company.
Petit also danced his way into film working with notable composers, filmmakers, sculptors, and designers including Yves Saint-Laurent, César Baldaccini, Serge Gainsbourg, and Henri Dutilleux. In 1965, Petit went back to France and put together the first production of Maurice Jarre’s Notre Dame de Paris and then moved on to stage ballets all over the world including Cuba, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy.
The Paris Opéra had a small upheaval of its own in 1968 and it was motivated by the Petit ballet Turangalîla. Sticking to what he did best, Petit started the Ballet National de Marseille. The work Petit used for the opening was Pink Floyd Ballet and he stayed on as their director for the next twenty-six years. He also stuck with his trend of working with exciting artists including French-Armenian illustrator Jean Carzou and Max Ernst, a German visual artist.
Petit built a career of dancing, directing, and choreographing more than fifty ballets. He was known for his excellence in narrative ballet as well as abstract and was presented with the Prix Benois de la Danse in 1994. The previous year Petit published his memoirs I Danced on the Waves or J’ai dansé sur les flots. He passed away in 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland.
2. Carlos Acosta
Our next dancer has appeared with the American Ballet, the Houston Ballet, the National Ballet of Cuba, and the English National Ballet. Carlos Acosta was born in Havana on June 2, 1973 to a poor family of thirteen. Acosta’s father drove a truck and his mother was often ill.
His childhood was spent in the streets, most of the time without shoes on his feet. His father, concerned where his street life would take him, felt young Carlos would acquire some much-needed discipline with dancing. Acosta began his education at the Cuban National Ballet School and studied with Cuban legends like Ramona de Sáa. By the time Acosta graduated he earned exceptional honors from the institution.
When he was still a teenager Acosta was offered lead roles from Romantic pieces that were typically given to established danseurs. He began dancing with the Royal Ballet of London in 1998 after spending some substantial time with the Houston ballet and stayed on with the company until 2015.
In 2003 Acosta became a Principal Guest Artist with the Royal Ballet, which freed up some time for him to dance around the world as a guest dancer with other companies. When Acosta decided to leave the Royal Ballet, they celebrated his time there with a production of the Bizet opera Carmen. He starred in the production with his own choreographed dances.
Over the span of his career, Acosta has been presented with the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne, the Grand Prix at the 4th biennial Concours International de Danse de Paris, the Vignale Danza Prize, the Frédéric Chopin Prize, the Prize for Merit in Young Talent Competition, the Osimodanza Prize, the Grand Prix at Cuba’s Union of Writers and Artists competition, the Dance Fellowship from the Princess Grace Foundation, the Prix Benois de la Danse, and was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to the world of ballet.
3. Maria Tallchief
Born Elizabeth Marie “Betty” Tallchief, this ballerina was born on January 24, 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma to the Native American tribe Osage Nation member Alexander Joseph Tallchief and a woman of Scottish-Irish heritage named Ruth. Tallchief’s mother wanted to dance but her family couldn’t pay for lessons so, by the time she had Maria and her sister Marjorie, also a successful dancer, began their training at the age of three in Colorado Springs, where her family spent their vacations.
Mrs. Sabin, a teacher from Tulsa, came across the sisters while searching for new pupils. The Tallchief sisters studied with Sabin, something Maria felt was a mistake later in life. Sabin put her en pointe at the tender age of five and the dancer has said she felt fortunate to not have been “permanently harmed.” In 1933, the Tall Chief family headed to Los Angeles with the intention of getting their kids into the movies.
The family moved to Beverly Hills, since Tallchief senior was from a wealthy family, and young Maria, known to her family and friends as Betty Marie, continued her dance education with Ernest Belcher but moved on to train with Bronislava Nijinska, a famous choreographer from Poland who had just set up shop in the United States. Tallchief also spent time learning from Russian-American Dancer David Lichine.
In fact, Tallchief said that her time spent studying with Nijinska was when she decided to become a professional dancer. When she was fifteen Nijinska cast Tallchief in three ballets she choreographed for the Hollywood Bowl with the corps de ballet. When she was seventeen, Tallchief headed to New York with a friend after working on the film Presenting Lily Mars with Judy Garland.
Tallchief would eventually make her way to the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine. Her reputation preceded her and she was instantly given lead roles in works like Apollo and Le baiser de la fée. In the late 1950s she became a member of the American Ballet Theatre and danced with Erik Bruhn of the Russian ballet.
This ballerina would also work in television giving performances on The Ed Sullivan Show and as Rudolf Nureyev’s partner when he debuted on American television in 1962. She also starred as famous ballerina Anna Pavlova in the musical film Million Dollar Mermaid.
When Tallchief retired, she moved to Chicago where her husband lived. While there she headed the Lyric Opera of Chicago until 1979 and founded their ballet school in 1974. Soon, with her sister Marjorie, she would start the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 and keep it running until 1987.
Many biographies have been filmed about this ballerina including Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina in 1997. Another titled Maria Tallchief was made by a production company in Seattle, Washington that aired on PBS in the early 2000s. Over the span of her career Tallchief was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievements in 1996 as well as being named “Woman of the Year” twice by the Washington Press Club.
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