Giselle is a ballet created by the renowned French poet and author, Theophile Gautier in the mid 1800’s. This romantic ballet epitomizes the elegance of the 19th century and many of the same emotions and story lines run parallel to today’s societies all over the world, which is why the tragic love story of Giselle will continue to be watched by many for years to come. The relevance in modern day ensures that it will never age, and the romance will never go out of fashion. In fact, this ballet provides many people with the hopeful notion that everlasting, pure love like the love shared between Giselle and her Prince Albrecht can still exist in their lives.
The Miami City Ballet’s Giselle
Giselle in considered to be the quintessential ballet of the 19th century and has universal themes that run throughout the tragic love story. The Miami City Ballet’s version is one that succeeds in bringing those themes across beautifully, with an excellent Giselle who encourages you to feel with her as she dances gracefully as a peasant girl and then as a Wilis (a doomed spirit of dead girls that have died before their wedding day). The Miami City Ballet’s principal dancers, as well as the corps de ballet, ensure that their movement is precise and in complete harmony to portray the essence of this piece and encourage new audiences as well as regular patrons to keep the romance alive in today’s skeptical world.
History of Giselle
Giselle was first conceived by a famous French author, poet, and critique Theophile Gautier in the mid 1800’s. He was moved by a piece of literature written in 1835 by Heinrich Heine called De l’Allemagne. In a passage of it, Heine describes a scene with spirits in flowing white gowns that wander hopelessly in the night and can be seen as supernatural apparitions in the moonlight. Gautier immediately wrote to Heine and told him that he thought, “What a pretty ballet one could make of that!” (Charles Gautier -Gerard Charles, Ballet Met 2001) and imagined the ballerina who he was in love with, Carlotta Grisi to play the role of Giselle.
Gautier sent the idea to Marquis de Saint-Georges, Jules-Henri Vernoy, who eloquently penned most of the first act, and together with Gautier, the second act. The libretto was finished within three days and has remained totally unchanged, emphasizing the important turning point that was made in the ballet arena at this time and how this ballet is often referred to as the perfect romantic ballet.
Following the completion of the libretto, Gautier took the ballet to Grisi’s ballet teacher and husband Jules Perrot who was impressed by the work. He in turn showed it to the composer Adolphe Adam who got approval from the Paris Opera Director Leon Pillet to begin work on it. His ethereal and spine chilling composition took only 8 days to sketch and three weeks to complete. Choreography began soon after and took 2 months to rehearse.
The revolutionary ballet opened in 1841 and achieved great success for not only the score, and choreography, but the costumes, set design, and this was echoed when a style of hat and fabric were named after the ballet. Giselle introduce many new ideas into the ballets of that time and was the first ballet to include a mime scene which happens between Giselle and Albrecht in Act 1 and the usual tragic demise of the main character and then her mystical resurrection and the bitter sweet romance that ensues in Act 2.
There are certain points that differ in the Miami City Ballet’s version of Giselle as opposed to the original, which include the dropping of the flying in of Giselle as the Wilis. With the advent of block pointe shoes, this is no longer necessary, as the dancer can seem to float as she does perfect bourrees across the stage. The pointe shoes also allow the dancer to perform the many hops en pointe in her merry solo dance in Act 1, which would not have been possible at the time. There was also a scene of the huntsmen playing dice at the beginning of Act 2 and Albrecht witnessing the demise of the villager in love with Giselle, Hilarion.
Whilst a lot has changed in Giselle the ultimate story line and magic is accurate. The eerie feeling that the Wilis bring across with their Queen Myrtha in Act 2 is still the same as it was at that time, and the love that is shared and fought over between the realms of earth and the spirit world is just as powerful.
A Detailed Synopsis
The first act of Giselle takes place in a small forest village where the maiden Giselle is loved by all. They are all dressed as peasant folk from the 19th century and are happy with their life. We see a vast forest of trees as the backdrop, and the set comprises of Giselle’s house and the house of her neighbor Loys, who is in love with her. She has a kind but weak heart as we discover when she begins to dance and is promptly stopped by her mother. She however loves to dance and continues anyway. This inspiration was drawn from Victor Hugo’s poem, Les Fantomes, about a girl who dances herself to death.
It is soon seen that she is in love with the peasant Loys, who is in fact a nobleman in disguise, because a nobleman, in those days, was forbidden to marry a peasant girl. A triangle is soon established as we are introduced to the game keeper Hilarion, who is also in love with Giselle. He eventually finds out that Loys is in fact Prince Albrecht. During the joyful grape harvest the Prince’s mother and father visit the village along with the noble woman that he is supposed to marry, Bathilde. Giselle is excited and in awe of the beautiful noble women who are wearing the finest clothes made of luxurious fabrics and bright colors. They also have large items of jewelry that she admires.
Giselle is then made Queen of the Harvest and her protective mother reluctantly gives her permission to dance, which she does with passion. Meanwhile, Hilarion and the Prince reach a point in their hatred for each other, where Hilarion cannot resist exposing the Prince for who he really is. Everyone is the village is in shock, as is the King and Queen. Prince Albrecht tries to explain everything to Giselle, but she continues to dance in a rage of madness and confusion, and eventually dies of a broken heart.
The second act begins with Hilarion visiting Giselle’s misty grave just before midnight. This act is set in the haunted forest and the atmosphere is dull and the colors are dark. Among the dense, bare trees and thick fog, we see the first glimpses of the beguiled Wilis, who are embittered female spirits of those that have died before their wedding day. They are all in white ankle length tutus which give an eerie contrast to the dark forest. These are meant to resemble their wedding gowns and they wear flowers on their heads. They are led by their Queen Myrtha, who dooms Hilarion to dance himself to an exhausted death. Upon Prince Albrecht’s arrival at Giselle’s grave he is met with the same fate, however as it strikes midnight, Giselle awakens as a Wilis, doomed to haunt the earth forever.
The scenes that follow show the disbelief of Albrecht as he is taunted with Giselle’s image. He is soon reunited with her, but it is not for long. The Queen still wants to lead the Prince into a dance of death, and her Wilis’ turn away from Giselle as she pleads with them to spare his life, because she loves and forgives him. The Queen does give in eventually, when she sees the intense love that the two share. This love, however, is short lived as the Wilis, including their new member, Giselle, vanish into the night leaving the sad Prince alone.
The Dancing of Act 1
The athleticism of both the female and male dancers is pushed to the limits in the first act, and the dancers of the Miami City Ballet met the challenge with professionalism and poise. In the beginning, Giselle must perform various interesting hops en pointe and pirouettes to perfection. She must not only do this with grace and balance, but with speed, as most of her solo performances are done with exuberance, because of her dangerous passion to dance which later contributes to her death. Many of the Act 1 dances include energetic piques, pas de bourrees, and grand jetes.
The popular peasant pas de deux was also rehearsed to perfection and this is one of the highlights of the first act, that was only included in the original performance close to the opening of Giselle, because of one dancer’s favor with a high powered ballet patron. The male dancers in this ballet are given great steps with many leaps and difficult pirouettes as well as a grand fouette en tournant (a succession of on the spot 360 degree spins on one leg), which are probably more than in many other ballets. The principal dancer has to be extremely powerful to successfully perform these movements and the part of Hilarion requires a dancer with good strength and control, as this is a character role that needs to look much easier than it is.
The main theme that is brought across so beautifully through principal dancer’s connection and the corps de ballet’s joyful dance with flower garlands is that love is so powerful that it is not restrained to class structures. Other themes that everyone can relate to in any period of time are the jealousy and hatred that Hilarion expresses towards Loys, as well as the jealousy that blinds him into putting the women he loves in danger. The scene where Giselle goes mad is one that must be portrayed with a great combination of anguish, love, and confusion, which the Miami City Ballet’s Giselle did. She gave the part just the right amount of madness that could put a lump in your throat as you watched, while dancing and performing her steps accurately. The perfect atmosphere was created with the lighting and Adam’s enchanting score, showing the transformation of a happy occasion into one of tragedy.
The Dancing of Act 2
As the curtain goes up on the second act, one could immediately feel the tension and shivers up your spine. The set and lighting are haunting with mist covering the stage. The entrance of Hilarion is sad and slow. It almost feels as thought everything is happening in slow motion. When we see the Wilis, your eyes take a minute to adjust as they seem to float across the stage. This act is challenging for the corps de ballet as they must use great power to perform the bourrees, while at the same time being as light as possible on their feet and achieving a tension free upper body. It is also challenging due to the fact that all of steps performed by the corps are done in unison. Their legs must be the same height in the arabesques, and they must turn and balance as one at all times. The dance of the Queen Myrtha is one that also requires plenty of strength, as she does complex movements that are usually seen in a pas de deux. She does high developpes and various balances and turns on one leg that use the entire body to its fullest.
When Giselle enters, she is seen to be trembling, and she does this for almost the entire Act which is extremely tiring and requires great strength and stamina. The Miami City Ballet’s Giselle did not disappoint and brought across the forlorn spirit who cannot rest, with grace and excellent technical skills. This act is a complete change from the first and the dancers have to transform their bodies from being energetic and speedy, to being controlled and powerful. Many of the pas de deux dances are done with plenty of lifts and sad embraces, bringing across the ultimate truth about the love that Giselle and her Prince had lost, but fought for through the supernatural barriers that existed. Even, the dance of death that the Wilis force the men to do, are done expertly with style and professionalism that it really does seem as if they have no control of their feet.
Once you watch the Miami City Ballet’s Giselle, you are soon taken in by the tragic love story that you would still hear about in today’s society. The universal themes of jealously and everlasting love which most people can relate to no matter where you live in the world, are entwined with a magical danger and romance that draws people and allows them to open their most vulnerable natures to accept this perfectly romantic, but tragic story over and over again, and it will for many years to come.
Charles, G. (2001). Ballet Met Notes Giselle. Columbus. www.balletmet.org
Fulks, S. (2007). Miami City Ballet’s Giselle Comes Alive in Act 2. Palm Beach Daily
News review. www.palmbeachdailynews.com
Souche, E. (N.D). Giselle. Dance Pages. www.cmi.univ-mrs.fr