Obituaries

Janine Charrat, 93, ballerina and choreographer

Ms. Charrat in Papeete, French Polynesia, with a trophy she had just received for her services to dance after an accident forced her into retirement.
SOULIE/AFP/Getty Images
Ms. Charrat in Papeete, French Polynesia, with a trophy she had just received for her services to dance after an accident forced her into retirement.

Janine Charrat, a noted French ballerina who became a major choreographer at a time when few women were engaged in that pursuit and survived a midcareer accident that left her badly burned, died Tuesday in Paris. She was 93.

Her death was confirmed by a friend, Sylvie Nègre.

Best known later in life as a choreographer, Ms. Charrat began her career as a child star. At 12, she appeared to great acclaim in Jean Benoît-Lévy’s 1937 film “La Mort du Cygne” (“The Death of the Swan,” released the next year in the United States as “Ballerina”). The older ballerinas Yvette Chauviré and Mia Slavenska were also in the film.

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Her talent and charisma, as well as her unusually early interest in choreography, led to a collaboration with Roland Petit while she was still in her teens. Out of that alliance came the creation of her first major piece, “Jeu de Cartes,” which established Ms. Charrat as an important new and notably female voice in the dance world.

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She continued to perform major roles while maintaining her choreographic career. In 1951 she founded her own company, the Ballets Janine Charrat (which became the Ballet de France in 1955), and went on to create for it some of her most important works, including “Concerto de Grieg” (1951), an homage to the dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar; “Les Algues” (1953), to music by Guy Bernard; and “Héraklès” (1953).

The company toured extensively, appearing in the United States in 1957. Reviewing a performance at the Brooklyn Academy that October, John Martin wrote in The New York Times: “There is no doubt whatever that Miss Charrat is an authentic talent of a high order. Her movement and her invention are always informed by inner feeling, even when she is working in the strictly classic idiom.”

In addition to creating pieces for her own company, Ms. Charrat choreographed ballets for La Scala in Milan, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, La Monnaie in Brussels, the Geneva Ballet, the Vienna State Ballet, and the Paris Opera. In 1961, she worked with Maurice Béjart and his Ballets of the 20th Century, choreographing “Les Quatre Fils Aymon” with him.

That same year she made international headlines when her costume caught fire during the filming of “Les Algues.” Although severely burned, she was determined to return to the stage as both dancer and choreographer. Less than two years later, she created and starred in “Tu Auras Ton Nom Tristan” at the Grand Theater in Geneva, where her company was based from 1962 to 1964.

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Janine Charrat was born on July 24, 1924, in Grenoble, France. Her family moved to Paris, where her father was a senior official in the Fire Department. She began to study ballet with a series of Russian teachers — Olga Preobrajenska, Lubov Egorova, and Alexander Volinine — and won the part of Rose Souris, a student at the Paris Opera Ballet School, in Benoît-Lévy’s film.

Ms. Charrat met Lifar during the making of “La Mort du Cygne”; he was the film’s choreographer and, more significantly, the director of the Paris Opera Ballet. He was to greatly influence her career.

At 13, Ms. Charrat was already giving her own dance recitals with works she had created, and she drew the attention of Irène Lidova, a French dance critic and producer.

In 1942, Lidova asked Roland Petit, then a young dancer who was not yet known as a choreographer, to collaborate with Ms. Charrat on the first of a series of concerts that would lead to the founding — by Petit, Lidova, and Boris Kochno — of the Ballets de Champs-Élysées.

Three years later came the success of “Jeu de Cartes,” to the Stravinsky score of the same name, for the Ballets de Champs-Élysées, with a cast that included Ms. Charrat, Jean Babilée, Nathalie Phillippart, and Petit. Ms. Charrat was soon in high demand by both French and international ballet companies.

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Her inclinations were experimental, and she collaborated with prominent writers, composers, and designers, including Jean Genet and Darius Milhaud (for “Adam Mirroir”), Pierre Balmain (“La Femme et Son Ombre”), and Henri Sauguet and Christian Bérard (“La Nuit”).

In 1952, Ms. Charrat appeared in Benoît-Lévy’s film “The Little Match Girl,” based on a Hans Christian Andersen story. Viewing it 51 years later, when it was shown at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York, Anna Kisselgoff of The Times noted, “The effervescence of French ballet in the first 15 years after World War II comes through” in the film.

But she added, “The film is profoundly disturbing as a study in constant disillusionment and because its images of flames and fire presage Ms. Charrat’s 1961 accident.”

Ms. Charrat continued to choreograph and to work until 1973, when she created “Offrandes et Hyperprism,” to music by Edgard Varèse, for the Paris Opera Ballet.

Her last piece, “Passion de Jésus-Christ,” was staged in 1994 at the Palais de Papes in Avignon. In 1999, she was awarded the title Commander of the Legion of Honor by the French government.