© Roland Simounet © Pascal Delcey


Specially created for the brilliant Roland Petit, today the Ballet National de Marseille (BNM) is a leading centre for choreographic creation in Europe. We look back at its three directors and forty years of creation.

With Les Ballets de Marseille (1972-1981) and subsequently the Ballet National de Marseille (1981-1998), for twenty-six years Roland Petit gave Marseille an international cultural stature that until then had been unimaginable. He left Marseille bereft when he moved to Switzerland in 1998 and then passed away in 2011.

“Marseille gave me the freedom to create.” This was how Roland Petit, the undisputed master of modern dance, paid homage to the city that enabled his repertoire to flourish for twenty-six years. The love story between Marseille and the couple comprising Roland Petit and Zizi Jeanmaire began in 1972 when Gaston Defferre proposed establishing a brand new company that would be influential in France and the wider world. At the time Roland Petit still owned the Casino de Paris where he staged shows for his glittering partner, but this Paris venture proved a financial disaster and the choreographer took up this opportunity to assert his prestige in an institution specially created for him. He therefore established Les Ballets de Marseille, giving up the Casino de Paris a few years later.

With his first creation in Marseille in 1972, Roland Petit rooted his modernity and rebelliousness in the city by paying homage to rock music in a venue usually reserved for major sporting events ! With Pink Floyd Ballet in Salle Vallier, accompanied live by the famous rock group performing on a platform above the dancers, the choreographer stated : “With ballet, people have to come and see it first, and then they’re charmed by it. It’s physical. So I’m assuming that young people are going to come to see Pink Floyd in Vallier and will then adopt Les Ballets de Marseille.”

And young people did come. Others came too, such as the poet Louis Aragon who made the shift to ballet, perhaps more sensitive to Allumez les étoiles, the other ballet in this double inaugural programme, created the previous year in Avignon and based on the poet Jean Ristat’s argument about Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Born in 1924 the son of the stylist Rose Repetto, whom he asked to make his dance shoes, Roland Petit trained at the ballet of the Opéra de Paris, notably under Serge Lifar. His cemented his reputation as a choreographer after the war, collaborating with Cocteau, Brassaï, Kosma and Prévert.

In the 1970s and 80s, he attracted famous artists to Marseille such as Maya Plisetskaya and her couturier Yves Saint-Laurent (La Rose malade, 1974) and Mikhail Baryshnikov (La Dame de Pique, 1978). He staged the art of David Hockney (Septentrion, 1975) and Keith Haring (Le Mariage du Ciel et de l’Enfer, 1984), the music of Art Zoyd (Valentine’s love songs, 1998) and Gabriel Yared (Le Diable amoureux, 1989) and the words of Edmonde Charles-Roux (La Nuit transfigurée, 1976) who said of the choreographer : “He’s like a brother to me”.

However, the reason why people in Marseille are still grateful to him is that he exported a prestigious and avant-garde Marseille to the world’s greatest stages. During his time in the south of France, Roland Petit was a genius much in demand and sought after by Hollywood movies and Broadway theatres. Legendary compositions such as Carmen and La Dame de Pique now feature on the repertoire of leading ballet companies.

In 1981 the company officially took on the status it deserved and became the Ballet National de Marseille. Some years later, in 1992, Roland Petit opened the École National Supérieure de Danse in Marseille, which still welcomes dancers today from all over the world in the white box designed by the architect Roland Simounet, a modern evocation of a Moorish village.

Appointed director of the Ballet National de Marseille after Roland Petit, Marie-Claude Pietragalla’s time in Marseille (1998-2004) saw a new repertoire emerge that was open to styles other than that of the master. Taking over as head of France’s second permanent choreographic company after the Opéra de Paris ballet, Marie-Claude Pietragalla aimed to create a style that would bring together all kinds of styles so that she could fully express herself. Locals in Marseille who love stars, including from the world of dance, were delighted by the arrival of this popular diva who was brimming with ideas. Having joined the dance school of the Opéra de Paris at the age of nine, the beautiful Corsican joined the corps de ballet when she was 16. She performed the works of Nureyev, Lifar, Martha Graham and Béjart, and captivated contemporary choreographers who went on to create for her (Don’t look back by Carolyn Carlson) or invited her to work with their companies (Les Variations d’Ulysse by Jean-Claude Galotta). Marie-Claude Pietragalla spent six years at the Ballet National de Marseille, leaving a final message in the form of Ni Dieu Ni Maître, a vibrant homage to Léo Ferré.

While Marie-Claude Pietragalla went on to establish her own company and regularly returned to present her latest creations to audiences in Marseille, notably at the Théâtre Toursky where she maintained close ties with Richard Martin, the choreographer Frédéric Flamand took over at the Ballet National de Marseille, redefining the direction it would take for a second time. Not particularly familiar with the stages and audiences of Marseille – despite attracting attention in the city with Moving Target during the 1998 Festival de Marseille– the BNM’s new director had a very different style from his predecessors. Gentle, discrete and affable, Frédéric Flamand had solid experience. Before coming to Marseille, he had spent twelve years at what used to be the Ballet Royal de Wallonie, transforming this temple of neoclassical dance into Belgium’s leading contemporary dance company, rechristened Charleroi/Danses. After coming to Marseille in 2004, he continued the artistic journey he had begun with his first company Plan K in 1973, demonstrating his formidable ability to remove barriers between different artistic disciplines. A great lover of architecture and inspired by artistic and industrial techniques, for many years Flamand – a director, actor and choreographer – collaborated with leading names the likes of Jean Nouvel and Thom Mayne. During his first three years at the helm at the BNM, he conceived La Cité radieuse with Dominique Perrault, Metapolis II with Zaha Hadid – who a few months later went on to design the CMA/CGM Tower, the city’s largest – and Métamorphoses with the Campaña brothers. In 2010, he invited the Chinese architect and visual artist Ai Weiwei to collaborate on his graphical ballet La Vérité 25X par seconde. In Frédéric Flamand, the BNM rediscovered its golden past, presenting his creations on the world’s major stages and, through his creations, inviting people to contemplate tomorrow’s world.

With Frédéric Flamand’s period as artistic director coming to an end in late 2013, when Marseille had been honoured as the European Capital of Culture, the duo comprising Greco I Scholten, appointed in February 2014, have embarked on a quest for a new identity for the Marseille CCN. Their plans indisputably include taking a close and critical look at ballet, involving a long-term European collaboration with the International Choreographic Arts Centre (ICK) which they founded in Amsterdam in 2009. This follows a 15-year artistic career marked by a unique style that focuses on the power of the dancer’s body. In Marseille, they will be introducing an artistic vision centred on two main themes : “the rebellious body” on the expression and presence of dance and the position of the artist in society, and “le corps du ballet” on the research and development of a new form of contemporary ballet.

excerpts : In Marseille Culture(s), published by HC, 2012
by Jean Contrucci and Francis Cossu

Roland Simounet was born in Algiers in 1927.

He studied at the School of Architecture in Algiers, then in Paris, and began designing buildings in 1951.

He took part in the International Congress of Modern Architects and designed the Djenan El Hasan housing project in 1956-1958, the Timgad housing project in Algeria and the hall of residence at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

In France, his works of note include the Grenoble School of Architecture in 1977, the renovation of housing block no.1 in Saint-Denis and three museums: the Museum of Prehistory in Nemours from 1975 to 1979, the Picasso Museum in Paris in 1985 (restoration of the Hôtel Salé), and the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern Art from 1979 to 1983.

A member of the Académie Française d’Architecture, Roland Simounet was awarded the Grand Prix National d’Architecture in 1977 and the Equerre d’Argent in 1985 for his work on the Picasso Museum.

The building in Marseille’s Parc Henri Fabre which is home to the Ballet National and the Dance School opened in 1992.

Movement, equilibrium, challenge, freedom, joy

Running, climbing, stamping, hurtling, pushing, spreading out to work, relaxing: stages proposed for the living journey through the École Nationale Supérieure de Danse de Marseille. Like a huge piece of working scenery, a gently climbing ramp leads to the building’s entrance and a raised inner courtyard open to the sky. Brought together, students and dancers enter the light-filled lobby which is extended by walkways. Two generously proportioned staircases on either side of the porch, featuring a simple straight stairway, divide the students and dancers and lead them towards the garden level. Here the School’s students step onto peripheral walkways, moving through their cloakrooms before reaching the studios opposite.

This is where the cloakrooms and dressing rooms for the Company’s dancers are located, in a wide curved envelope comprising the large studio’s apse. For them, movement extends towards the upper levels, where chill-out rooms, gentle ramps and paved terraces articulate and spread out into a labyrinth open to the sky.

The living, active journey – alternating through covered passageways and light-filled spaces – leads to the heart of the building. Here the soothing volumes and simple geometry of the School’s studios are bathed in a diffuse glow while the vast naves of the large studios are enclosed by high walls and filled with light. Outside, in a long travelling shot, the building reappears, solar, unfurling its heavily structured volumes and balanced by the stage wall built like a beacon. Movement, rhythm, harmony, forms: appropriate responses for this place dedicated to Dance.

Roland Simounet