Pierre Lacotte
This tribute to the legendary French dancer/choreographer, who passed away on 10 April 2023, was written by MIKE DIXON ahead of Lacotte's 90th birthday last year

Pierre Lacotte was presented with the Lifetime Award at the Prix de Lausanne in 2022.

Pierre Lacotte is the last great choreographer working in the direct traditions of the nineteenth century. Initially known as a modern, cutting edge choreographer, he later turned his attention and deep research to the ballets of the Romantic era and became the outstanding executant authority on this period. At the Prix de Lausanne in February he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding work as a choreographer and director. On 4 April he will celebrate his 90th birthday after recently mounting his new full length ballet, Le Rouge et le Noir for the Paris Opera Ballet.

Born at Chatou, France in 1932 he evinced a passion for dancing at an early age and eventually joined the Paris Opera Ballet School in 1942 where he took lessons from Gustave Ricaux, who taught in a pure French style whose traditions went back to Mazilier, Perrot and Sant-Léon. During the War, as a child, Lacotte appeared in the operas and ballets presented at the Salle Garnier under the directorship of Serge Lifar. He also came under the influence of Lubov Egorova and Carlotta Zambelli who initiated him into the Russian and Italian styles which they embodied. He immersed himself in the traditions of the Opéra and rose to become a principal dancer in 1952, often partnering Yvette Chauvirée and Lycette Darsonval.

In 1955 Lacotte founded his own company Les Ballets de la Tour Eiffel, choreographed six original ballets including the acclaimed La Nuit est une sorcière, and continued to guest as a principal dancer in New York and London, where he became an admirer of the work of Frederick Ashton. He was well known at this time for being attracted to jazz music and his highly successful Such Sweet Thunder for the Berlin Festival in 1959 featured music by Duke Ellington. In 1963 he became the artistic director of the Ballet National des Jeunesses Musicales de France and in 1966 returned to London to create two works for Ballet Rambert: Numéros and Intermédes. In 1968 he married his life partner Ghislaine Thesmar, a dancer of outstanding beauty and refinement and the only foreign ballerina George Balanchine was happy to constantly welcome as a guest to New York City Ballet. Lacotte was invited to teach at the Conservatoire and at the Opéra, where he conceived his plan, based on extensive research he made in 1958 while injured, of recreating Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide of 1832. In 1972 La Sylphide was broadcast on French television with Thesmar in the title role, and Lacotte received a deluge of requests to stage it for many companies world-wide, including the Paris Opéra.

With La Sylphide, Lacotte’s career took a radical new direction. His faithful reproduction of the style of the Romantic Ballet of 1832 made dancers, choreographers and the public realise that Ballet in the twentieth century was losing touch with its most significant period of development, when ballet had led all the other arts. 

Lacotte had tracked down the original costume and scenery designs, the original music, and any contemporary references to the vocabulary of steps being performed at the time of the original premiere, but he freely choreographed the ballet. This is what gave La Sylphide its sense of authenticity, or as Lacotte prefers to say, he aims to “capture the perfume” of the original ballet. This was a modus operandi he continued to employ in many future recreations.

In the following years he revived historically significant ballets from the Romantic period: Coppélia (1973), La Fille du Danube (1978), La Cachucha and the pas de six from La Vivandière (1979), Nathalie (1980), Marco Spada (1981), Le Papillon (1982),La Fille du Pharaon (2000), Paquita (2001) and Ondine (2006). These productions, among other full-length ballets were for Paris, Moscow, St Petersburg, Buenos Aires and Rome, in fact opera houses with big budgets that could afford to stage the ballets in an authentic nineteenth century manner.

Lacotte and Thesmar became the joint artistic directors, leading ballerina and resident choreographer, of the new Ballets de Monte Carlo in 1983. Between 1991 and 1999 he became the artistic director of the Ballet national de Nancy and Lorraine, where he created versions of Giselle and Swan Lake among many other ballets.

Throughout his career Lacotte has demonstrated Promethean energy, and his creative output has been extraordinary by any standard of measurement. The many ballets listed here are only highlights of his output. His profound understanding of the ballet of the Romantic era and the Second Empire is second to none and his research has revealed hitherto unknown facts: that female dancers jumped much more frequently than they do in our own era, but that they were light jumps that skimmed the stage; that the vocabulary was richer and more varied; and that allegro, with many beaten steps was the favoured style of the Romantic Ballet. He also observed that the whale-boned corsets worn by dancers in this period made a significant influence on the shape of the ports de bras. He can glance at an obscure Romantic era lithograph and know immediately the title of the ballet, the identity of the ballerina, the designer, and the names of all the other creatives, simply based on the stage costume worn by the dancer in the image.

In person, Lacotte wears his knowledge lightly; he has an abundance of natural charm and a delightful sense of humour; he is also an inveterate giggler if something amuses him. He is not a confrontational or ego-led person, but his views are always expressed honestly in a very forthright manner. He is the Grand Old Man of Ballet and we should consider and appreciate his greatness in this year of his 90th birthday.


Originally published in Dance Europe no. 260 April/May 2022