In English, “le jeune homme et la mort" translates to “the young man and death." There's no missing the somber tone in this clip of Roland Petit's short ballet. As the young man, Rudolf Nureyev dances in a reverie to the melancholic organ chimes. Throughout the technical tricks and complicated prop maneuvering that peppers Petit's choreography, Nureyev never loses his trance-like stare. The reason for his reverie soon strides through the door. Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, based on the libretto written by Jean Cocteau, is about a man who—consumed by his love for a woman—is eventually driven to suicide.
Zizi Jeanmaire, Petit's real-life lover and muse, plays the woman, and Nureyev's submission to her seductive power is evident. She sidles up against him and teases with swiveling hips and playful kicks. In French, nouns carry genders, and it's interesting to note that the word “death" is feminine. The woman is the one who loosens the noose, turns Nureyev's head towards it and then disappears, leaving the man with the torment of her absence and one tragic way out.
The climactic, macabre ending is no indication of Petit's own life. Though he had a brief affair with Margot Fonteyn, Petit married Jeanmaire and they lived together until his death four years ago, nearly to the day. With his risqué themes and evocative choreography, Petit is remembered for enabling ballet to enter a new realm of storytelling. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!