Maria Torija has performed Giselle 112 times.
As a dancer with Staatsballett Berlin (formerly Deutsche Oper Berlin), Torija, now BalletMets’s academy director, was cast in almost every part aside from the title role during her 20 years with the company.
She knows this ballet well.
So as we perform this timeless work, we asked her to share her knowledge of its historical significance, beautiful storytelling and iconic moments. Here are five fun facts you may not know about Giselle.
The main storyline of the ballet actually finishes in the first act.
The central plot of Giselle comes to a close at the end of the first act. Our heroine, who is fragile but spirited, suffers from a heart condition. After discovering that her love, Albrecht, has been lying to her, Giselle dies of a broken heart by dancing herself to exhaustion.
She is gone, and Albrecht is left with his guilt. So why have an act II? Keep reading…
The second act is commonly referred to as the White Act.
Act II is mystical and otherwordly. It takes place in the forest, where the Wilis, led by Myrtha, haunt their prey. The Wilis are the angry spirits of young maidens who’ve been betrayed. If a man wanders near them, they force him to dance to his death.
It was common for Romantic ballets and productions to have a White Act, which often included white costumes and scenery representing spirits or a dream-like state. As is the case with Giselle, the White Act also gives the lovers a chance to say one last goodbye.
“The second act is where you see the most dancing,” Torija says. “And great emotions are created through dance.”
Giselle was one of the first full-length ballets to be performed on pointe.
The pointe shoe allowed for the dancer to create sylph-like movements, such as floating and flying.
Marie Taglioni was the first dancer to perform a full-length ballet on pointe in La Sylphide, created in 1832. Giselle premiered just nine years later.
“That’s why Giselle and the Romantic ballets are so important because it was the first time female dancers went on pointe,” Torija says. “The whole technique developed even more after that.”
Giselle’s female protagonist was groundbreaking.
Prior to the Romantic period, it wasn’t common to have a female heroine.
“During Romanticism, there was a radical change,” Torija says. “It became about the women.”
Giselle herself is at the center of the drama, and our femme fatales, i.e. the Wilis, drive the second act. Despite her fragile nature, Giselle displays great strength at the end of the ballet as she saves Albrecht from Myrtha’s wrath. Through her fortitude and forgiveness, he’s prevented from having to dance to his death.
Giselle was an incredible collaboration of 19th century artists.
Some of the greatest Romantic and artistic minds contributed to the creation of Giselle.
Théophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, both celebrated playwrights, wrote the libretto. Adolphe Adam, a prolific composer, is responsible for the music. Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, both dancers, created the original choreography.
Years later, Marius Petipa, often called “the father of classical ballet,” wanted to revive Giselle for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, but the choreography of the second act had long been forgotten. So the White Act, as we see it today, is primarily his creation. BalletMet’s Giselle will also include inflections of Artistic Director Edwaard Liang’s choreography.
The central Romantic theme of Giselle, however, remains.
“It’s so beautiful,” Torija says. “It’s expressing the most important thing in life: to love each other.”
Join us for Giselle, Feb. 9-17 at the Davidson Theatre. Tickets start at just $29.
Photo by Jennifer Zmuda