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Throwback Thursday: Giselle

This week's #ThrowbackThursday is Giselle, in honour of the Royal New Zealand Ballet production which opens tonight in Wellington. I saw it back in 2012, and it was breathtaking - I highly recommend checking out the RNZB on Facebook, where they've been posting snippets of rehearsals.

Lucy Green as Giselle in the RNZB 2012 production

Giselle is a Romantic-era ballet, set in the Rhineland (Germany), during the Middle Ages. Act I opens in a small village celebrating the grape harvest. Among the villagers is the young Duke Albrecht of Silesia, who has disguised himself as peasant named 'Loys' in order to court one of the village girls, Giselle. She knows nothing of his deception. Albrecht hides his cloak and sword with the aid of his squire, before coaxing the shy Giselle from her cottage.

'He love me, he loves me not': Qi Huan and Gillian Murphy, RNZB 'Giselle' 2012

Hilarion, the local gamekeeper, is also in love with Giselle. He is both jealous and suspicious of his new rival 'Loys'. Hilarion tries to convince Giselle that 'Loys' cannot be trusted, but Giselle ignores him. Giselle's mother, Berthe, is very protective of her daughter, who has a weak heart; she also tries to intervene in the romance, to no avail. Berthe especially disapproves of Giselle's love of dancing, which she fears will one day kill her, and tells her the story of the Wilis as a warning.

Qi Huan (Albrecht) and Gillian Murphy (Giselle), RNZB 'Giselle' 2012

A party of noblemen out on the hunt suddenly arrive at the village. Albrecht mysteriously disappears, for among the party is a noble lady named Bathilde, his betrothed. The villagers give the noblemen refreshments and dance for them. Bathilde is charmed by Giselle's dancing, and offers her a place as her maid. Giselle refuses, saying she is to be married, and Bathilde gives her a necklace as a wedding gift.

Giselle admires Bathilde's dress, RNZB 'Giselle' 2012

After the nobles depart, Giselle is named the Harvest Queen, and Albrecht appears once again to dance with her. Hilarion, however, has found Albrecht's sword, and interrupts the festivities with the revelation that 'Loys' is really a noble Duke promised to another woman. Giselle refuses to believe this, and Hilarion calls back the hunting party with Albrecht's hunting horn. Albrecht has no time to hide, and is forced to greet Bathilde as his betrothed. Giselle becomes inconsolable, flying into a mad fit of grief. In some versions of the story, she dances herself to death; in others, she kills herself with Albrecht's sword. Albrecht and Hilarion turn on each other in fury, before Albrecht leaves to grieve. The curtain closes on Berthe weeping over her daughter's body.

Berthe mourns Giselle's death at the end of Act I

Act II opens on Hilarion visiting Giselle's grave, deep in the forest. It is the middle of the night, and Hilarion is frightened away by the arrival of the Wilis, the vengeful spirits of maidens betrayed by their lovers. At the command of their merciless queen Myrtha, they haunt the forest by night and prey on any man they meet, forcing their victims to dance themselves to death.

Queen Myrtha and the Wilis, Dutch National Ballet

Myrtha pulls Giselle's spirit from her grave, and inducts her into the ranks of the Wilis. As they disappear into the forest, Albrecht arrives, this time dressed as a Duke. He lays flowers on Giselle's grave and weeps with guilt over her death. Giselle appears, and he desperately seeks her forgiveness. Giselle still loves Albrecht, and forgives him for betraying her.

Giselle appears to Albrecht at her grave

Giselle leaves to join the other Wilis, who have cornered Hilarion. She is unaware that Albrecht has followed her. The Wilis use their magic to force Hilarion to dance until he is almost dead, then drown him in the nearby lake. When they discover Albrecht, they sentence him to death as well. Myrtha coldly refuses the pleas of Albrecht and Giselle. She forces Albrecht to dance, but thanks to Giselle's interventions, he is still alive at sunrise. The Wilis cannot bear sunlight, and sink back into their graves. Giselle, because she has forgiven Albrecht, is no longer under the Wilis' control, but she is still forced to return to her grave.

Giselle and Albrecht appeal to Myrtha, The Royal Ballet

This story is only a guideline; due to the immense popularity of Giselle, there are many versions. The RNZB, for example, presents the ballet as an older Albrecht reflecting on his past; it ends with his visit to Giselle's grave, putting himself at the mercy of the Wilis once more.

Giselle and Albrecht

Giselle was first stage by the Ballet du Theatre de l'Academie Royale de Musique in Paris, France, on the 28 June 1841. The famous Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi created the role of Giselle, as her debut in Paris. Based on a passage about the Wilis from Heinrich Heine's De l'Allemagne and on the poem 'Fantomes' by famous novelist Victor Hugo, the ballet was choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to music by Adolphe Adam. The traditional choreography still mainly used today derives from a 19th century revival by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg.

Theorised influences for the ballet include the miniature Ballet of the Nuns from Meyerbeer's opera Robert le diable, in which nuns rise from their graves to dance in the moonlight, and La Sylphide, which debuted in 1832 starring Marie Taglioni. The first production of Giselle experienced multiple delays, and Grisi, who was to dance the title role, had fallen ill; news reports exploited the ballet's supernatural theme by beginning to claim that the production was cursed, which of course only served to increase its popularity. In fact, when it finally opened, the ballet was an unqualified success. The original cast included not only Grisi as Giselle, but also Lucien Petipa as Albrecht, Adele Dumilatre as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, and Jean Coralli himself as Hilarion.

Carlotta Grisi as Giselle, 1842

The critics especially loved the ballet. One writer wrote an enraptured review of Adam's music alone, calling it 'ravishing' and 'full of tragic beauty'. Others could not stop praising the leads, Grisi and Petipa: they acted, according to Gautier, 'a real poem, a choreographic elegy full of charm and tenderness. More than one eye that thought it was seeing only [dance] was surprised to find its vision obscured by a tear - something that does not often happen in a ballet. Grisi danced with a perfection that places her in the ranks of Elssler and Taglioni.'

The Wilis, RNZB 'Giselle' 2012

Over the years, several additions were made to the original ballet which have become part of the traditional work. For the first revival of the ballet, Jean Coralli was obliged to add a new piece for the dancer Nathalie Fitz-James. Though originally the new music was to be provided by Adolphe Adam, in the end Coralli chose a suite by Friedrich Burgmuller; this addition to Act I has become known as the Peasant pas de deux.

The great Marius Petipa added three variations to the ballet. The first was created for Adele Grantzow in 1867 to music by Cesare Pugni; it was a small addition to the Act II grand pas de deux. The second, to music by Riccardo Drigo, was created for Emma Bessone's debut at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1886; today, it is only retained in Mariinsky productions as part of the Peasant pas de deux. Petipa's third variation, however, has survived as one of the most loved parts of the ballet. Sometimes called the Pas seul, it was created in 1887 for Elena Cornalba. Contrary to popular belief, the music is by Riccardo Drigo, not Ludwig Minkus. Following a performance in Paris in 1924 which included the variation, it has become a standard part of the ballet.

Lucy Green as Giselle, RNZB 2012

The ballet has been revived many times. Notable instances include the London production of the original ballet, starring Grisi and Jules Perrot, in 1842; the 1924 revival for the debut of Olga Spessivtzeva; the 1911 Ballet Russes production at Covent Garden starring Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky; a 1913 production starring Anna Pavlova; the celebrated Vic-Wells Ballet productions featuring (variously) Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn; and the Perrot and Petipa productions for the Russian Imperial Ballet. Interestingly, in 1984, Frederic Franklin restaged the ballet for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. His production, Creole Giselle, is set among Creoles and African Americans in 1840s Louisiana.

Giselle is, of course, still immensely popular today. As I mentioned in last week's Spotlight article, it was Alicia Markova's favourite role, and remains so for many modern ballerinas. Below is a link to the celebrated Pas seul variation from Act I, starring Natalia Osipova in 2008, with some of the most dizzying turns I've ever seen:

Or, if you're feeling particularly enthusiastic, here's a link to the entire 1996 La Scala Ballet production, starring Alessandra Ferri and Massimo Murru:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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