B lessed with prodigious talent and taboo breaking pluck, ballerina and actress Zizi Jeanmaire (born Renee Marcelle Jeanmaire in 1924) earned her role as icon with a memorable name and gamine good looks to boot. She married dancer and virtuoso, Roland Petit – the leading choreographer in the post war years – and the couple became the toast of Paris with Zizi embraced into Yves Saint Laurent’s circle and into Hollywood royalty.
Songwriter Peter Starstedt famously immortalized the ballerina in the lyrics for Where Do You Go To (My Lovely): “You talk like Marlene Dietrich, and you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire / Your clothes are all made by Balmain and there's diamonds and pearls in your hair".
Zizi was a breakthrough performer combining the burlesque style of dance hall routines with the fine ‘art’ of ballet and she would switch from pointe shoes to high heels and marabou within a show. She beguiled her audience through Petit’s provocative choreography and charisma. Her stage persona was inextricably linked with Yves Saint Laurent who created numerous costumes for her both on and off stage liberating her from the clichés of corsets and tutus.
She first met Saint Laurent while he was the assistant of Christian Dior in 1956 and the designer costumed Zizi and her dancers for her music hall reviews including Spectacle Zizi Jeanmaire held at the Palais Chaillot in 1963. He infused his designs with daring elegance, combining codes of the street with burlesque and haute chic.
The designs for her character were flamboyant, deliciously frivolous and included a one-shoulder sequin cocktail gown with a flounced feather skirt showstopper, a bird of paradise burst of pink marabou, entitled ‘le champagne rose.’ They were designed to enhance Zizi’s energetic routines and several decades later, the looks still appear the essence of Parisian glamour. The leitmotifs of feathers, volume, exoticism, sequins and thigh skimming lengths launched a cascade of trends that still remain at the heart of Saint Laurent today.
For Toi et Ton Sax, featuring collaborator Serge Gainsbourg, Zizi’s bare breasted dancers appeared in thigh high sequined boots and balaclava style helmets, tulle ballerina skirts. In the character Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac, Saint Laurent imagined Zizi in a flouncing cascade of taffeta. The couturier’s illustrations brilliantly capture the sparkle and theatrical vitality of Zizi on stage.
Saint Laurent and Gainsbourg was one of huge circle of Petit’s collaborators that spanned Picasso, Erte, David Hockney and Erte. A 2007 exhibition in Geneva offered a retrospective on Petit and Zizi’s world. The couple’s breakthough was with Petit’s Les Ballets de Paris with Zizi starring as Carmen (1949) and Petit as Don Jose. They underlined ballet and theatre with chic and intelligence, combining high frivolity with philosophical poignancy. “I’m always very optimistic,” said Zizi in 1961. Petit passed in 2011 and today, the dancer lives in Geneva.