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In Memoriam: Jean Babilée 1924-2014

English National Ballet rehearsing La Jeune Homme et la Mort, a piece that Babilée orignally starred in.
Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images

One of ballet’s true greats passed away on January 30th. His passing was announced on Feb. 3. While Babilée’s name and reputation have since been eclipsed in the popular mind by the Soviet defectors who came after him—especially Nureyev and Baryshnikov—Babilée was one of the rare stars of dance who redefine their art. His athleticism and technicality made him a muse for the iconic French choreographer Roland Petit. It was Petit’s now-legendary La Jeune Homme et la Mort (The Young Man and Death) that made Babilée a star. In the first performance of his character’s death scene, he ended with a rope around his neck, supporting himself with one arm. That particular feat sums up the rebellious prowess that made him a star. It also encapsulates the high-octane personality who would periodically disappear for motorcycle trips (with or without his cat). Some of that rebel quality had roots beyond the stage. Born in Paris to a Jewish eye surgeon (Babilée’s give name was Jean Gutman), he trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School. World War II saw him fleeing Paris and fighting for the Resistance. After the war, he danced in Les Ballets des Champs-Elysées and Les Ballets de Paris. He also served as director of his own company. He is survived by his wife, filmmaker and choreographer Zapo Babilée, a daughter, Isabelle, from his first marriage (to fellow dancer Nathalie Phillipart) and a sister, Sarah Clair.

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