Jean Babilée, Rebel of World Ballet, Dies at 90
Jean Babilée, who gained instant stardom in French ballet as the violent chair-throwing youth in Roland Petit’s “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” (“The Young Man and Death”) in 1946, and who remained international dance’s great rebel, died on Thursday in Paris. He was 90.
His wife, the filmmaker Zapo Babilée, confirmed the death.
“Sensational” was a word critics applied liberally to Mr. Babilée’s dancing, including his first guest appearances in New York with Ballet Theater (now American Ballet Theater) in 1951. His extraordinary technique, soaring leaps and masculine power were matched by a pantherlike pounce and a jarring poetic presence.
“Angel and demon” was how Nathalie Philippart, his first wife and dancing partner, described him in Patrick Bensard’s film “Le Mystère Babilée” (2000). Rejecting conventions in dance and life, Mr. Babilée occasionally quit performing to travel abroad on his motorcycle, into his 80s. He last appeared onstage in 2003.
He also choreographed for his company, Les Ballets Jean Babilée, from 1955 to 1959, and acted onstage and in films.
Mr. Babilée was classically trained at the Paris Opera Ballet school and had perfect classical style. Yet as a member of Les Ballets des Champs-Élysées, founded by Petit in 1945, he was an experimental dancer, his career emerging from the creative ferment in French ballet after World War II and his roles coming out of his personal, impulsive way of moving.
Leslie Caron was an unknown 16-year-old when she danced the role of the Sphinx to Mr. Babilée’s Oedipus in David Lichine’s “La Rencontre” (“The Encounter”) in 1948. She wore pointy ears, long fingernails and huge cloth wings and climbed to a platform with a trapeze. When Oedipus solved her riddles, the Sphinx committed suicide in a headlong plunge.
“I attached myself by the ankle and threw myself backward,” Ms. Caron told The New York Times in 1995. “Babilée used to pull my ponytail to see if I was really dead.”
Jean Babilée was born Jean Gutmann in Paris on Feb. 3, 1923, into an affluent and culturally inclined family. His father, a physician, was a prominent eye specialist who painted on the side and knew Picasso.
Mr. Bensard, founding director of the Cinémathèque de la Danse, included in his film telling clips of Mr. Babilée’s charmed childhood, with the boy tumbling into the acrobatics he would later make famous. When young Jean expressed a wish to study dance, his father sent him to the Paris Opera Ballet school in 1936. After the Germans invaded Paris in 1940, Jean danced classical roles in a small company in Cannes for three years.
During the Nazi occupation, he stopped dancing as Jean Gutmann — his father was Jewish, his mother was not — and adopted his mother’s maiden name professionally. Still, after he rejoined the Paris Opera Ballet corps in 1942-43, someone wrote “Jew” on his dressing room mirror. A French police officer, conducting an identity check, warned him to leave because of his Jewish heritage. Mr. Babilée said he joined the Resistance in Touraine and returned to Paris at the war’s end.
In 1945 he came to notice in the Ballets des Champs-Élysées as the meddlesome joker in Janine Charrat’s version of Stravinsky’s “Jeu de Cartes.” He then shot to fame with his explosive performance in the Paris premiere of “Jeune Homme” as the artist driven to suicide by an allegorical death figure.
In 1947, in London, he partnered Margrethe Schanne, Denmark’ s great Romantic ballerina, in the Bluebird pas de deux from “The Sleeping Beauty.” The dancer Erik Bruhn once said that he had been so stunned by Mr. Babilée’s power that for a time he thought he should stop dancing altogether, until he realized that he should not try to copy him; thus did Bruhn become ballet’s great danseur noble in Denmark and at Ballet Theater.
In 1979, Mikhail Baryshnikov went backstage and reportedly fell at Mr. Babilée’s feet after seeing him perform in “Life,” a duet created by Maurice Béjart in which Mr. Babilée and a young woman were often encased in a cube of metal tubes. It was a mildly gymnastic display and a gloss not only on “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” but also on a midlife crisis.
Mr. Babilée was later director of the Rhine Ballet in France, in 1972-73, and appeared in stage productions of Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending” and Jean Genet’s “The Balcony.”
Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Isabelle, from his marriage to Ms. Philippart, which ended in divorce, and a sister, Sarah Clair.
In 1984, Mr. Babilée took a more celebrated risk in Paris. Accepting a challenge from Petit, he reprised his role as the antihero in “Jeune Homme” to show current dancers how it should be done. At 61, he dived into a neck stand, cheek to floor.