The history behind Giselle
Giselle is one of the earliest in the canon of 19th century ballets, a relatively small group of works which have been passed down from one generation to another. It was first performed in 1841 at the Paris Opéra with Carlotta Grisi and Lucien Petipa in the leading roles. Giselle was the idea of poet and critic Théophile Gautier, who was looking for a vehicle to display Grisi’s talents. Apart from the universal theme of love beyond death, Gautier had two sources – Victor Hugo’s poem Les Fantômes, which told of a Spanish girl who “was over-fond of dancing and that killed her”, and the Slavic legend of the Wilis.
Jules Perrot, Giselle’s original choreographer together with Jean Coralli, produced the first London performance in 1842. He returned to England the following year and, because Grisi was unavailable, Fanny Elssler portrayed Giselle instead. All present-day conceptions of the iconic mad scene in Act 1 are based on Elssler’s dramatic interpretation.
Giselle and Romanticism
Giselle is one of the greatest ballets of the Romantic period. Act I is set in an idealised version of the German Rhineland at the height of the grape harvest. The act ends with Giselle’s insanity on discovering Albrecht’s betrothal to the aristocratic Bathilde. However, it is the second act that most explicitly taps into Romanticism’s emphasis on other-worldliness and danger, as Archive Consultant Jane Pritchard explains:
The second act focused on society’s fascination with the supernatural; by phantoms and spirits particularly as the introduction of gas lighting in the theatre enhanced the sense of moonlight and ghostly effects. The impression of the supernatural and insubstantial was reinforced by the development of pointe work, which combined with light jumps, gave the ballerina the illusion of weightlessness. Women gave the works an element of danger when they were presented as femme fatales or, as in Giselle with Myrtha and her sister-Wilis, as beautiful vampires who lure men to their death.Jane Pritchard
Recreating a Romantic Giselle
Since 1841, Giselle has undergone many changes, from choreographers changing its setting as early as 1907, to Akram Khan’s provocative reimagining in 2016. As some versions moved away from tradition, others aimed to get closer to Giselle’s origins, starting with Mary Skeaping’s 1953 production for the Royal Swedish Ballet which formed the basis for her classic 1971 production for English National Ballet.
Researching the original production was essential, as Irmgard E. Berry, Adviser to the Skeaping Estate, explains:
Skeaping built her production on the piano reduction, published in 1841 and which she found in the archives of the Royal Opera House, Sweden, until she was able to obtain a microfilm of the original and unpublished orchestral score from the Paris Opéra by the mid-1950s. While in Paris, she also collected as much information as possible on the original production. The extensive writings by Théophile Gautier and contemporary critiques, lithographs and newspaper illustrations, all provided her with inspiration for her production.Irmgard E. Berry
Thanks to the invaluable help of Tamara Karsavina, one of the finest exponents of balletic mime, Skeaping restored the mime scenes which were cut or omitted in many 20th century productions. An example is the mother’s mime scene in Act I, where we have a first indication of the supernatural, foreshadowing the music and the action in Act II, as Berthe relates the legend of the Wilis, and warns the men that the spirits will command them to dance until they die.
Another major restoration in Act I is the Pas des Vendanges, a suite of dances which Giselle and Albrecht perform to celebrate the wine festival. No record of the original choreography exists, although Serge Lifar describes Giselle’s solo as a “vivacious tricotage to a flute melody,” while Albrecht should dance the “acrobatic arsenal of the danse d’école”. In the finale of the pas de deux, Albrecht and Giselle “give an image of fidelity with kisses in arabesque”.
There has been a long-standing controversy as to whether Giselle dies of a broken heart or stabs herself with Albrecht’s sword at the climax of the mad scene. Skeaping followed Anna Pavlova’s example, with the sword being snatched from Giselle before she can stab herself. Her weak heart, already revealed in a telling moment which Skeaping restored earlier in Act I, cannot stand the shock of Albrecht’s duplicity and so she dies.
The essence of Act II is the conflict between the supernatural and the religious. The dominant supernatural figure is Myrtha, who epitomises the Wilis’ passion for dancing. Skeaping restored her solo music to establish this extraordinary passion, creating the most virtuosic choreography in the ballet, with the instructions to dance “furiously and with great delight”.
The contrast between the supernatural and the religious culminates in the fugue for the Wilis, after Giselle has led Albrecht to the safety of the cross marking her grave, as Irmgard Berry explains:
The myrtle branch, Myrtha’s symbol, is shattered by the superior power of the cross. On the final bars of the fugue, Myrtha orders Giselle away from the cross, realising that Albrecht will not be able to resist the seductive power of Giselle’s dance. However, Giselle thwarts Myrtha’s intentions until dawn when the Wilis must return to their graves. In a beautiful mime sequence restored by Skeaping, Giselle tells Albrecht: ‘the sun has risen, you are saved’Irmgard E. Berry
Skeaping herself comments how any attempt to reconstruct the original Giselle would be purposefully an impossible effort:
Even if it were possible to reconstruct Giselle in every detail as at its first performance in 1841, it is doubtful if the production conventions of that time would be acceptable to modern audiences. Perhaps they would only destroy what has become for us the essence of romanticism.Mary Skeaping
She therefore omitted the original final scene in which Bathilde and Albrecht are reconciled at Giselle’s grave. Instead, only Albrecht receives Giselle’s blessing as her spirit sinks back into its grave.
Irmgard Berry explains Skeaping’s thoughts behind her innovative opening to Act I, when we’re first introduced to the villagers, and her inclusion of Giselle’s solo which has become a tradition:
In 1968, when staging Giselle for Frankfurt Ballet, her designer Hein Heckroth told her of the autumnal custom still followed in some German villages of tasting the new wine at a different cottage each day. The selected cottage is indicated by a wreath-encircled wine-jug hung outside. Skeaping incorporated this little ceremony into her subsequent productions. For dramatic purposes, Skeaping also included Giselle’s solo in Act I to music by Ludwig Minkus. This was an addition to the original ballet, probably choreographed by Petipa in the 1880s. In her view, dancing was the only way Giselle had of thanking Bathilde for her gift of the necklace, after discovering that they are both engaged.Irmgard E. Berry
When watching this celebrated production, we are reminded both of the timeless appeal of this quintessential Romantic story, and of ballet’s constant evolution and innovation.
Experience Mary Skeaping’s Giselle at the London Coliseum, 11 – 21 January.