French dancer and choreographer, whose innovative and influential ballets combine fantasy with contemporary realism. He is a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur.
Petit trained at the Paris Opéra Ballet School under Gustave Ricaux and joined the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1939. During the next five years he danced in a variety of works and achieved his first success as a choreographer with Orphée, Rêve d'Amour. In 1944 Petit concentrated on performing his own works at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris with Irène Lidova and support from such artists as Christian Bérard (1902–49) and Jean Cocteau. With financial help from his father, Petit founded the Ballets des Champs-Elysées the following year, acting as principal dancer, ballet-master, and choreographer. Secure in his own company, his dancing began to develop an angular acrobatic style; with Les Forains (1945) he had his greatest success to date. The company also performed Le Jeune Homme et la mort (1946) to considerable critical acclaim, proving that ballet could still be used as a contemporary medium.
In 1948 Petit formed the Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit, which presented his works Les Demoiselles de la nuit (1948), L'Oeuf à la coque (1949), Carmen (1949), and La Croqueuse de diamants (1950), among others. Several important dancers emerged from Petit's company, including Renée (Zizi) Jeanmaire (1925– ), who attracted attention with her passionate dancing in the popular Carmen and whom Petit married in 1954. They subsequently worked together in Hollywood on several films, including Hans Christian Andersen (1952), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and Anything Goes (1956). In 1960 Black Tights, a film incorporating several Petit dances, was released and since then many new choreographic opportunities have been offered to Petit with leading companies around the world. Recent ballets by Petit include Die Fledermaus (1980) and Soirée Debussy (1985).