Written in the mid 1800's, this quote could easily be attributed to the challenges facing dance today:
"…in ballet the public demands above all a varied and striking score, new and unusual costumes, a great variety, contrasting sets, surprises, transformation scenes, and a simple plot which is easy to follow and in which the dance develops naturally out of the situations. To all that must be added the charm of a young, beautiful dancer who dances differently and better than those who have preceded her."
The Romantic Ballet
The "Romantic Movement" dominated the arts of Europe during the first half of the 19th century. Painting, music and literature were swept up in the Romantic ideals: questioning the academic rules of the past; stressing individual expression and experimentation; and moving away from classic themes to the inclusion of more local color, supernatural beings and melodrama.
Ballet was a latecomer to the Romantic style. Before that flashy virtuoso male dancing ruled the late eighteenth century ballet, with the increasing number of turns and athleticism of the male dancer ushering in the early nineteenth century. The ballets were usually transcriptions of existing stories (usually Greek or Roman myths), or dealt with pastoral scenes of shepherds and shepherdesses. Staging was elaborate and full of conventions, and the dressed wigs, full-skirted coats, heavy dresses, and high-heeled shoes did not make for easy dancing. This would all change on July 23, 1827 when Marie Taglioni danced for the first time at the Paris Opéra. One of the first to recognize the importance of Taglioni, Le Figaro wrote "Her debut will open a new epoch. It is Romanticism applied to dance…"
Taglioni's movements were considered lovelier than any before her. She could jump with a soaring lightness, she seemed to float on air, and she had perfected the art of dancing on the ends of her toes. Taglioni was not the first to dance 'en pointe'. Mme. Amalia Brugnoli had since 1822, but with an eye to astounding the audiences with her tours de force such as how long she could stay on point. Taglioni combined this technical strength with a poetic understanding and expressive language. She was the most influential dancer of her day, heralding in not only the Romantic era in dance but also other stylistic changes. It was she who first wore the long lightweight skirt that would become known as a Romantic tutu, and she established the hairstyle of the center part with the rest kept tight and close to the head.
Cyril Beaumont described the femme fatale of the Romantic era as "That elusive, fascinating, mocking vision, half woman, half goddess, which haunted the imaginations of so many poets, painters, writers, and musicians of the last century, and becoming their muse, inspired some to achieve masterpieces." Contemporary critics certainly believed ballerina Marie Taglioni embodied those and other desirable qualities.
A July 27 1840 Le Constitutional article stated ". . . a revolution against the rule of the pirouette, but a revolution that was greatly accomplished through the irresistible power and grace, perfection and beauty in art. Marie Taglioni loosened the legs, softened the muscles, gradually changed by her example the tasteless routine and unstylish attitudes, taught the art of seductive poses and correct harmonious lines, and founded the double kingdom of grace and strength, the most beautiful and most pleasing and rarest of kingdoms."
Ballet, although a latecomer to the style was mysterious and magical for its lack of the spoken word and proved to be an ideal vehicle for the Romantic pursuit of the unattainable. Also gas lighting was being introduced in theaters at that time leading to an ability to create atmosphere on stage, as well as dimmed lights in the auditorium, that created a sense of suspense.
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The Genesis of Giselle
The first ballet at the Paris Opéra to have an original dramatic plot was La Somnambule (1827) with a scenario by Eugène Scribe. Early Romantic ballets include La Gypsy (1839) with music by Ambroise Thomas, La Péri (1843) and the dances in Meyerbeer's opera Robert le Diable (1831) which inspired the creation of La Sylphide (1832). Filippo Taglioni's La Sylphide was based very loosely on Nodier's Trilby. It was also the first ballet to have strength within the music. Before then ballets were set to a collection of danceable popular tunes that were unrelated in musical style.
Giselle set a new course. The ballet was conceived by the influential French poet, author, critic and possibly the greatest champion of the Romantic ballet, Théophile Gautier. Giselle was created to honor the ballerina Carlotta Grisi, whom Gautier not only admired for her dancing, but with whom he was in love. Gautier was inspired by a passage from Heinrich Heine's 1835 work, De l'Allemagne. He wrote to Heine thus:
"My dear Henri Heine,
While leafing through your beautiful book, De l'Allemagne, a few weeks ago, I came across a charming passage (one has merely to open the volume at random). It was the passage in which you speak of sprites in white gowns with hems that are perpetually damp, fairies whose little satin feet mark the ceiling of the nuptial chamber, the snow-white Wilis who waltz pitilessly the whole night long, and wondrous apparitions encountered in the Hartz mountains and on the banks of the Ilse, glimpsed in a mist bathed by German moonlight - and I said out loud, "What a pretty ballet one could make of that!
"In a rush of enthusiasm, I even took a large, lovely sheet of white paper and wrote at the top, in superbly clear script: LES WILIS, ballet. Then I burst out laughing and threw the paper away without going any further, telling myself that it was certainly impossible to translate all of that into theatrical terms - that misty nocturnal poetry, that voluptuously sinister phantom world, all those effects of legend and ballad that have so little in common with our customs. That evening at the Opéra, my head still full of your ideas, I met at the turning of a corridor the man of wit [Saint-Georges] who, by adding so much of his own, knew just how to infuse a ballet with all the fantasy and all the caprice of Le Diable Amoureux by Cazotte, the great poet who invented Hoffmann in the middle of the eighteenth century, according to the complete Encyclopedia. I told him the legend of the wilis. Three days later, the ballet Giselle was finished and accepted. At the end of the week, Adolphe Adam had composed the music, the scenery was nearly completed, and rehearsals went into full swing…."
Gautier turned to Jules-Henri Vernoy, Marquis de Saint-Georges to perfect the theatrical rendition of his tale. A dandy and a prolific writer, Saint-Georges had his first work published at age twenty. He eventually scripted 12 ballets and 80 operas, some in collaboration with Eugene Scribe. He had already penned La Gypsy and Le Diable amoureux (1840). Saint-Georges is probably solely responsible for the first act of Giselle and certainly shared the construction of the second act with Gautier. In three days Gautier and Saint-Georges finished the libretto that has remained unchanged, often referred to as the perfect Romantic ballet.
Gautier wanted Carlotta Grisi for the title role. For him, she combined the poetry of Taglioni with the fire and spunk of Fanny Elssler. Gautier showed the libretto to the ballet teacher Jules Perrot, who was also Grisi's common law husband, who agreed it would be an ideal vehicle for Grisi. Perrot in turn took it to the composer Adolphe Adam who showed it to the director of the Paris Opéra, Léon Pillet, who approved the libretto for Giselle.
Adam was in the process of finishing the music for the first full length ballet Grisi was to dance at the Opéra, La Jolie Fille de Gand. Although already in rehearsal, the ballet was not pleasing to Grisi. At Adam's request, Léon Pillet made the unusual move of halting rehearsals for La Jolie Fille de Gand so that work on Giselle could begin.
According to Adam's memoirs, he completed the sketches in 8 days and the full score for Giselle in just three weeks. By contrast, a generous 2 months was given to rehearse the choreography.
Jean Coralli, senior ballet master of the Paris Opéra, was put in charge of the production, although Perrot was allowed to arrange Grisi's parts. Perrot received no credit on either programs or posters for his contributions, probably for financial reasons. As a listed collaborator, Perrot would have been entitled to a share of the royalties. It is possible that Perrot agreed to this arrangement in hopes of being named a ballet master at the Opéra. Auguste Bournonville was passing through Paris during the creation of Giselle and stayed with Perrot and Grisi for several weeks. It is thought that he gave counsel to Perrot during this troubling time.
Letters from Adam, including statements such as "he had a big finger in the pie," make it clear that Perrot shared the choreographic tasks. It was also well known to the press of the day. A reviewer in Revue dramatique of 1841 writes, "One must add that although the playbill makes no mention of it, M. Perrot arranged all his wife's dances himself and is thus author of a large part of this ballet." It appears that not only the dances of Giselle, but also the mad scene and the dance of Hilarion and the wilis are also the work of Perrot.
Giselle or Les Wilis was first performed at the Paris Opéra Monday June 28, 1841 preceded by the performance of the third act of Rossini's opera Moïse. At the premiere the principal roles were danced by Carlotta Grisi as Giselle, Lucien Petipa (Marius' brother) as Albrecht, and the twenty year old Adèle Dumilâtre as Myrtha. The peasant pas de deux was inserted at the last minute for Nathalie Fitzjames, a soloist in the favor of an influential ballet patron. Mlle. Fitzjames danced with Auguste Mabille.
The ballet was a success on all levels, gaining critical and public acclaim for the choreography, music, designs and the dancing of all. This made Grisi's Parisian debut in a full-length ballet a particular success. Perhaps even more of an endorsement of Giselle's success was the fact that a style of hat and a type of fabric were named after the ballet.
The first production included elements rarely seen today, including a mime scene in which Giselle tells Loys that she has dreamt that he was in love with a beautiful noblewoman; the entrance of several members of the hunting party on horseback; and a large and impressive procession for the vinegatherers in Act I. In Act II missing today are the huntsmen playing dice at the beginning of the act; an encounter between the peasants and the wilis; Albrecht witnessing the demise of Hilarion from behind a tree; and Bathilde returning to reclaim Albrecht at the end of the ballet.
The original Act I solo for Giselle looked very different than it does today. All the hops en pointe that we associate with the dance today require the use of blocked pointe shoes that were not developed at that time. Grisi would have worn a slipper that was little more than a thin layer of satin secured with ribbons at the ankle. There was extensive use of specialized stage machinery for a special effect that was dropped in later productions, and the Wilis flew at the beginning of Act II.
The original production had 45 minutes of mime and 60 minutes of dancing. This is a ratio that has changed dramatically in modern times. The original name for Albrecht was Albert, a name Gautier seems fond of as he wrote a poem Albertu, and Albert also appears in his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin. Albert continued to be in general usage during the Romantic era, only later becoming Albrecht.
Giselle offered audiences an escape to a world of mystery, beauty, danger, and death, a vision that stirred the blood of poetic, as well as prosaic, imaginations. What secures its place as the apex of romantic ballet is that in place of the usual happy ending, in which virtue is rewarded, a tragic death followed by a ghostly resurrection is substituted.
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The Origins of Giselle
Giselle was not the first ballet to show a peasant in love with a noblemen. There had already been Clari (1820) and Nathalie (1821). A girl was also abandoned by a nobleman in L'Orgie(1831). Although Albrecht is a duke or count or some such rank of nobility, the plot does not focus on his function as a ruler, but instead on his personal life.
It seems that Gautier supported the idea of Giselle dying from an actual wound derived from Albrecht's sword. In Petipa's Russia suicide was thought unsuitable. Therefore he settled for death by the effects of shock and sorrow on a weak heart. This device has stayed with most contemporary productions even though many healthy looking, latter day ballerinas have certainly not looked in danger of dying from a weak heart.
We know that Gautier got his idea for the wilis from Heine, but where do these mythical creatures come from? Meyer's Konverationslexikon defines Wiles or Wilis as female vampires, the spirits of betrothed girls who are jilted before their wedding night. According to Heine wilis came from a Slav legend of maidens who are engaged to be married but die before their wedding. They are unable to rest in their graves because they could not satisfy their passion for dancing when they were alive. They therefore gather on the highway at midnight to lure young men and dance them to their death. There is a Slave word 'vila' which means vampire. The plural is vile, and wilis is probably a Germanic pronunciation of that word as a 'w' in German is pronounced like a 'v'. (Puccini's first opera is based on the same legend, in Italian Le Villi.) In Serbia they were maidens cursed by God; in Bulgaria they were known as samovily, girls who died before they were baptized; and in Poland they are beautiful young girls floating in the air atoning for frivolous past lives.
Inspiration for the first act also came from Victor Hugo's poem, Les Fantômes. About a girl who dies after dancing all night in a ballroom. It includes the line "She loved dancing too much, and that is what killed her."
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Subsequent Productions of Giselle
It is inevitable, over the years that the choreography has been changed due to the oral tradition by which choreography passes on. Preservation of ballet to this day comes through Russia, not France. Many of today's productions of Giselle rely on the revisions made by Petipa, whose version is better documented than the Paris original. Also in Russia the ballet was in continual production, as opposed to France where it was dropped for a number of years.
Looking at the mime scenes in Act I alone, they range from the stilted exchanges of Hilarion and Albrecht, with no hint of dance included, to the integrated and varied emotional intricacies of the mad scene. These are obviously the work of more than one person. The choreography echoes the strong lead set by the music, with its use of leitmotiv. Examples of choreographic leitmotiv are the ballonnés piqués and pas de basque for Giselle, Ballottées followed by a jeté en avant for Giselle and Albrecht together, the picking of the petals from the flower, and the extensive use of arabesque began by Myrtha and then imitated by the wilis in Act II. Adam's strong musical structure has also helped hold in check the extent of choreographic revision.
Giselle remained in repertoire at Paris Opéra until 1849, was revived in 1852, and again in 1863 for Russian ballerina Martha Muravieva. In 1868 Giselle was dropped from the repertoire and not revived until 1924.
The initial success of Giselle led to international performances, beginning in London in 1842 with Grisi and Perrot, and Milan in 1843. Before this London performance, just one year after the Paris premiere, the ballet had already been mimicked on stage in London as "A Dramatic, Melo-dramatic, Choreographic, Fantastique, Traditionary Tale of Superstition," under the title ofGiselle or the Phantom Night Dancers. In the United States an All-American version was produced in New York in 1842 with the original version being staged in Boston in 1846.
The first Russian performance came in St. Petersburg, in 1842, staged by Titus who relied solely on his memory of seeing the ballet in Paris. The Russian production must have varied tremendously. In 1848 Perrot arrived in St. Petersburg as ballet master and mounted a version of Giselle, which is argued as the fulfillment of Perrot's original concept. Undoubtedly he changed some of Coralli's work. Marius Petipa danced the role of Albrecht in this production. Perrot oversaw the ballet until 1859. During the 1860's Giselle was given a new variation in Act II, probably staged by Saint-Léon. In 1850 Petipa remounted the production under Perrot's supervision. Over the next 40 years he made his own revisions in 1884, 1887 & 1899. As the Italian virtuoso ballerinas began making headlines in Russia, the technical demands of the variations for Giselle were increased. This is when the Perrot original was discarded and what we consider the standard variation for Giselle in Act I was established.
Giselle was seen again in Paris during the second season of the Ballet Russes, in 1910, with Nijinski as Albrecht and Karsavina as Giselle. One year later Nijinski caused a scandal in Russia when he refused to wear shorts over his tights in Giselle, as was the modest custom. This act of disobedience (some say engineered by Diaghilev) caused Nijinski and the Maryinski to part ways permanently. The 1924 Paris Opéra production was staged by the Russian Sergeyev based on the notation he had made while régisseur of the Imperial Theatres. Olga Spessivtseva was Giselle. Sergeyev staged his version of Giselle for the Vic-Wells Ballet with Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin in 1934.
One of the most interesting interpretations of Giselle would be the 1984 Dance Theatre of Harlem production of a "Creole" Giselle set in the Bayou region of Louisiana. For the Cullberg Ballet, Mats Ek set a contemporary version of Giselle with the second act taking place in an insane asylum. The dancers are in modern dress. Myrtha is a nurse and the wilis are white-gowned patients.
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The BalletMet Production of Giselle
Although Giselle is a well known and fairly well preserved ballet, there is no documented "original version." Most of the surviving choreography for Giselle comes not from the original French production but from Petipa's St. Petersburg version. Therefore when staging a "traditional" rendition of the ballet, the person responsible must weigh their interpretation of the known historical facts with a sensitivity to the experience of the contemporary audience. Much lore has grown up around the ballet, such as the positioning of the wilis' arms when folded in front of the body. Is this pose purely stylistic, is it essential that one hand be placed over the heart, or was the position borrowed from Taglioni who was the fashion setter of her day who had extremely long arms which she sought to disguise?
Yoko Ichino believes that her staging of Giselle will most closely resemble that of the Royal Ballet as staged by Peter Wright. However, due to practicalities such as the numbers of available dancers and the sets and costumes in which the ballet will be danced, the BalletMet version will take on a look of its own. Ms. Ichino also carefully considers the personalities of the dancers who will portray the main characters. Because each dancer possesses unique qualities, she will coach each one with an interpretation appropriate to their individual style. Ms. Ichino believes that equally important are the clarity of the dancer's motivations and their timing. When multiple characters appear on stage, they must interact emotionally to direct the audience's attention to a common goal. Although this effect should look spontaneous to an audience, it is actually rehearsed with rigorous attention to the timing of each movement.
Perhaps of paramount importance is how the character progresses from one emotional state to the next. For instance, does Albrecht begin as a totally callous person, or is he already tired of the constraints of courtly life and searching for a simpler life? Does he then realize the great love that he has for Giselle, or is he more grief stricken by the pain he has caused another person by his deceit. Whatever the change, when does it happen? Is it instant or gradual? Albrecht's character will then go through more transitions with the death of Giselle, his search for her grave, the realization that he can see Giselle's spirit, and her subsequent protection of him against the other wilis.
In the first act when Giselle meets Albrecht she may traditionally strike a pose in one direction and then another stylistic pose in another place on the stage. While these poses have historic roots (though probably not from the original French production), they can seem stilted and unrealistic and impede today's audience's belief in the story. A more realistic reaction to Albrecht and natural transitions from pose to pose allow us greater sympathy for the characterization.
In general the second act of Giselle is the best preserved, with most contemporary renditions relying on the Russian lineage of the work. There is probably a large amount of Petipa's revisions in this act. Ms. Ichino's goal is not to substantially change anything but to increase the sense of illusion called for in the work. For instance a standard lift in Giselle is not there to show off physical strength but to give the illusion of flight. If a lift comes straight down this illusion is disrupted, but being lowered on a gradual diagonal can highlight it.
Ms. Ichino first danced the role of Giselle, with David Nixon as her Albrecht, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. They have portrayed the couple in many productions since that debut, and over a period of more than ten years paid great attention to the details of the work. Ms. Ichino hopes to bring this experience to the BalletMet dancers so that may possess a greater level of understanding of the characters in their debuts.
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The synopsis of the ballet Giselle
Act I - A rustic village
Giselle, a weak-hearted young girl who is adored by her native villagers, lives with her watchful mother, Berthe. Hilarion, the village gamekeeper, is desperately in love with Giselle. Prince Albrecht, a nobleman who is already engaged to a noblewoman named Bathilde, is bored and lonely with his everyday existence. Captivated by Giselle's frail beauty and innocence, Albrecht disguises himself as a peasant named Loys. After purchasing the cottage adjacent to Berthe's, he proceeds to shower Giselle with his affections.
Hilarion, filled with suspicion and jealousy, becomes enraged when Giselle falls madly in love with Albrecht and believes that they are engaged.
Berthe has a vision that her daughter will one day become a Wili, a jilted maiden who dies before her wedding night. The Wilis emerge between midnight and dawn to vengefully trap any man who enters their domain by forcing him to dance to his death.
Hilarion exposes Albrecht's disguise and proclaims that he is already betrothed to Bathilde. Overwhelmingly distraught and horrified, Giselle dies of a broken heart.
Act II - A forest clearing
Hilarion is discovered just before midnight keeping vigil by Giselle's tomb. As midnight approaches, the Wilis appear with their leader, Queen Myrta. This is the night Giselle is to be initiated as a Wili.
Albrecht, laden with feelings of guilt and remorse, visits Giselle's grave. He sees a vision of Giselle and follows it into the forest. At this point, Myrta discovers Hilarion in the forest and orders the Wilis to dance around him until he dies from exhaustion. She then discovers Albrecht and demands that he share the same fate as Hilarion but is unable to permeate the invisible bond of love that Giselle has for him.
At dawn, when the Wilis lose their power and must retreat to their dwelling place, Albrecht is saved and Giselle forgives him. Giselle returns with the Wilis and recognizes that now she will be one of them for the rest of time.
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The Designs for Giselle
The original synopsis does not specify the period in which Giselle is set. Pierre Ciceri, chief designer at the Paris Opéra from 1815-1847 was responsible for more than 300 productions and designed the original production of Giselle.
Due to financial necessity at the time, no ballet was produced with all new pieces. Giselle was no exception. The cottages in Act I were recycled from Adam's ballet La Fille du Danube, and the sky cloth from the opera Phaaramond, (which had already been reused in Aumer's La Belle au bois dormant.) Despite these borrowings Ciceri's Act I design has remained the model for all subsequent sets with Giselle's cottage on one side of the stage and Loys' on the other.
Ciceri spent his energies on Act II. The realistic style was in fashion at the time, and Ciceri applied more than 200 bull rushes and 120 flowering branches, all hand decorated and measured to fit, to the set. They also doubled as a cover up of the machinery that created some of the special effect. Most of the wilis and Giselle appeared and disappeared through trap doors. Some were probably flown as well. Ciceri wanted mirrors to use as a lake at the back of the stage, but this was not allowed on account of the expense.
The costumes were designed, or assembled, by Paul Lorimer, a costume designer for the Opéra from 1831 on. Again much was borrowed from other productions. Some integrity was maintained by displaying all of the characters in costumes of the medieval period from previous productions set in 14th - 16th centuries. Seventy eight of the one hundred and sixty costumes were reused from other productions such as the operas Guillaume Tell, Benvenuto Cellini and Mazillier's ballet Le Diable amoureux.
Probably the wilis and the principal characters were the only to receive new costumes. Although original, the designs for the wilis borrowed heavily from the designs by Eugène Lami for La Sylphide.
Heine described wilis thus: "Attired in their bridal dresses, with garlands of flowers on their heads, and shining rings on their fingers, the Wilis dance in moonlight like the Elves; their faces, although white as snow, are beautiful in their youthfulness. They laugh with such a deceptive joy, they lure you so seductively, their expressions offer such sweet prospects, that these lifeless Bacchantes are irresistible."
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Adam's Music For Giselle
At its premiere, the quality of the music for Giselle was the most convincing argument to date in favor of composing music for ballets rather than arranging pre-existing melodies. Up until then the most popular ballets used a pastiche of popular songs rearranged and orchestrated into danceable stew.
The music for Giselle was written at night, as was everything else Adam composed. He also always worked quickly. It is said that Giselle took less than a week to complete. Adam would argue that a work was not necessarily important because it had taken a long time to achieve.
Apart from the fact that the score was the first to use all new composition, another prominent feature of the music for Giselle is the use of "leitmotiv" (a theme that recurs in the music to refer to a specific character or emotion) as a narrative device. Adam was not the first to use leitmotiv in a ballet; François Halévy was perhaps the earliest in his 1830 score for Manon Lescaut. However, Adam not only repeats themes as they are, or changes their keys to affect the mood but also changes their tempi and rhythms to highlight the dramatic intent of the story.
Leitmotivs used in the work include Albrecht's theme in C major and Giselle's in G major which becomes the first love theme as they pluck the daisy. Hilarion's is in E minor, and the main love theme is in A major. The wilis' theme is heard in Act I when Berthe mentions the wilis and returns again in Act II.
Only a piano score was published in 1841. All orchestrations were made from this until Henri Busser published an orchestral score in 1924. A number of changes in the music had become "standard" by this time.
Music for the "Peasant pas de deux" was composed by Frédéric Burgmüller and added for the first performance to please a wealthy patron whose mistress was Nathalie Fitzjames, the dancer who took the part of the peasant girl. It is used to this day, although the placement in Act I varies, as does the number of dancers dancing it.
Ludwig Minkus made several changes to the score for the St. Petersburg productions. Giselle's variation was composed by Minkus and inserted in the 1864 production. It was so popular that it has been added into the original Adam score.
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Jean Coralli, Choreographer
Jules Perrot, Choreographer
Carlotta Grisi, The first Giselle
Some Notable Productions of Giselle
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Stories of the Ballets. Giselle - Geoffrey Ashton
The Ballet Called Giselle - Cyril W. Beaumont
Jules Perrot, Master of the Romantic Ballet - Ivor Guest
Giselle, A role for a Lifetime - Violette Verdy
Four Productions of Giselle - Cyril W. Beaumont
Giselle and Albrecht - Doris Hering
A History of Ballet and its Makers - Joan Lawson
Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets - George Balanchine & Francis Mason
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