Death of Pierre Lacotte, a dance master

Aurélie Dupont had allowed the choreographer (photographed here in 2013) to reconnect with choreography, in September 2021, at 89 years old. ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP

Nicknamed “the archaeologist of ballet”, the French dancer and choreographer died at the age of 91. He devoted his life to reconstructing 19th century ballets.

A master. Such was Pierre Lacotte. Not a huge dancer, not a stratospheric star. Just a dancing master. Originally, he dreamed of being a choreographer. Along the way, he realized that he had to resurrect the great lost ballets of 19th century choreographers. Lacotte was composed of a very particular mixture of erudition, humor and requirement. His eye curled with pleasure when he worked with dancers, he put the work back on the job a thousand times, and knew how to unleash a real little anger, very black and very nasty, at the right time.

But he had no equal in bringing these great ballets back to life. Not to give its own rereading but rather to show their extraordinary subtlety, lost in the meanders of time or destroyed by the advent of the Soviet era, more heroic and less delicate. At the Bolshoi in Moscow, where people are emphatic, he was considered a god because of this. At the Paris Opera, where people are more measured, they called him master.

Pierre Lacotte worked, tracing this personal path. His most emblematic resurrection is that of The sylph for his wife Ghislaine Thesmar and Michael Denard. But we also owe him Marco Spada, Paquita, The Pharaoh’s Daughter, The Daughter of the Danube

A will with The Red and the Black

Aurélie Dupont had allowed him to reconnect with choreography: in September 2021, he signed The Red and the Black for the Paris Opera Ballet. He had designed and invented everything – costumes, sets and dance – except Stendahl’s libretto. In this final opus, which he signed at the age of 89, imprinted a whole life of dance. Hers. His encounters, his enthusiasms, molded by his rigor, nourished by his encyclopedic culture and increased by his interest in what was being invented on stage, video, special effects… This dancing master had the same devouring curiosity as Petipa when he signed his great exotic ballets to show India or Egypt in a theater, at a time when cinema and tourism did not exist.

“Ghislaine Thesmar keeps telling me that I must have been born in a costume basket!”, he said, on the creation of Le Rouge et du Noir. More prosaically, Pierre was born in Chatou on April 4, 1932. He was a frail child who loved music and was enrolled in dance lessons, hoping that the exercises at the barre would strengthen him. Dance school in 1942, first dancer in 51. Lifar made him work. He created Septuor for him with Claude Bessy.

In 54, Lacotte scores with Night is a witch, one of his first choreographies to the music of Sidney Bechet. Filmed by Belgian television, it was a huge success. The choreography calls it. He left the Paris Opera, created the Ballets de la Tour Eiffel, dissolved them, and set himself up as an independent choreographer. In 1961, he discovered speechless at the same time as Paris, on the boards of the Palais Garnier, dancing the 3rd act of The Bayadere, a prodigy named Rudolf Nureyev. Lacotte, who tells him all the dances of the West, will surely count a lot in Nureyev’s decision. He will be at Le Bourget with him when he chooses freedom.

Michaël Denard and Ghislaine Thesmar rehearse with Pierre Lacotte a scene from Coppelia in this shot from 1974. – /AFP

Professor, choreographer, director of Jeunesses Musicales, Lacotte, invited to the jury of a competition, notices a young blonde woman who dances with a spirituality that stings to the quick. Her name is Ghislaine Thesmar. For her, he has the idea of ​​going in search of The sylph, a ballet by Taglioni created in 1832 for his daughter Marie. He must find the steps, the music, the costumes, the way in which the Sylphides fly in the air, disappear, pass through the chimneys… The ballet is broadcast on 1er January 1972 for the transition from television to color. All the companies are calling for it, it’s a worldwide triumph. Pierre Lacotte has found his way: he will restore lost ballets to their bewitching power, so that every company in the world will want them in its repertoire. Today, it is this magician in love with his art, that they mourn.

Death of Pierre Lacotte, a dance master