The ballet Giselle was originally choreographed by Jean Coralli (1779-1854) and Jules Perrot (1810-1910). It was first performed at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique, Paris on the 28th of June 1841 during the height of French Romantic period. This research is based on the production performed by Corpo di Ballo Teatro alla Scala, at Teatro alla Scala, Milan in 2005 (Produced by David Coleman).
Giselle is a celebrated ballet that exudes Romanticism in terms of its inspiration, themes and dance structures. The inspiration for this ballet is rooted in two of pieces of Romantic literature. The first is Fantômes by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), a poem which describes a “Spanish girl who dies because of her excessive passion for dancing” (Poesio, 1994, 455). The second is an article called De l’Allemagne by Heinreich Heine (1797-1856) which describes Slavic female legends that die before their wedding day and consequently take revenge on men by luring them to their death (Cohen, 1998, 178). Both works belong to the Romantic period, hence as the premise of this ballet is rooted in this era, it is natural that the resultant ballet would be characterised by similar features.
The most distinguishing feature that this ballet, is in fact of the Romantic period is the themes that the narrative deals with. Romantic ideas and themes tend to deal with that of the emotional state of a character and the fictitious. The bond of love between Giselle and Albrecht is the fundamental theme of this ballet. This bond also serves as a dichotomy when their love survives death; another theme which is typical of this era. In contrast with the theme of love, we see Giselle’s madness. We are given an insight into her mental state through elaborate mime and expressive dancing. The emotional themes of love, death and madness are all classic themes of the Romantic period.
Themes and creatures of the supernatural are also important to this period and they are certainly evident in Giselle. The concept of the real world juxtaposed with the supernatural world is a theme that runs through this ballet. Evidence of this is found in the structure of the ballet. It is divided into two acts; the first act deals with the real world while the second deals with the supernatural world of the Wilis. The contrast between the villagers of Act I and that of the Wilis in Act II, acts as an “unbridgeable gulf between ideals and reality” (Cohen, 1998, 180). Giselleparallels La Sylphide (1832) in the supernatural characterisation of the female through the Wilis, who physically portray a supernatural world.
A two act ballet structure is a common feature of Romantic ballet, and can also be seen in La Sylphide. “Each act is dramatically complete, with an introduction, a development and a conclusion of its own” (Poesio, 1994, 563). Many ballet productions that stem from this era primarily focus on trying to provide a platform for dancing, for the sake of dancing.
“When considered from a theatrical point of view, the plots of Romantic ballets are rarely coherent and convincing, mainly because their purpose was to provide and to guarantee enough pretexts for dancing regardless of the unity of action.”
Poesio, 1994, 563
Giselle is different in that its structure and libretto is devised so that each scene has a purpose and it is rare that characters dance for the pure exaltation of the art itself.
Combining the contrast between the two acts and the Romantic era’s desire for art, we see that dancing is Giselle’s passion in Act I, while in Act II dancing becomes the means for the Wilis to take revenge. This is significant in terms of the Romantic period as it satisfies the Romantic desire for art, while furthering the plot.
In an analysis of the dance vocabulary and style of the production, we notice that the type of vocabulary used is relatively simple to that of vocabulary we are accustomed to today. This is as consequence to the standard that existed in 1841. Despite the best attempts of ballet companies to accurately represent Giselle, we are influenced by its revisions over time coupled with contemporary audience expectations.
A few dropped and rounded elbows and a slightly titled torso – reputedly considered typical features of early nineteenth-century technique – suffice to reconstruct our contemporary idea of the Romantic ballet.
Poesio, 1994, 693
We must therefore acknowledge that it is not possible to truly represent Giselle as it was first performed in 1841.
“Several dance historians consider the ‘arabesque’ the most characterised step of Giselle” (Poesio, 1994, 571). During the first act the arabesque is a symbol of Giselle’s joyous manner as she teases Albrecht. Act II contrasts this, using the arabesque to represent the Wilis flying. It is also used to further the concept that the Wilis are trapped between this world and the next, existing “halfway between the earth and sky” (Poesio, 1994, 571).
Ballet Blanc is a Romantic ballet technique used to cultivate a dream-like or supernatural scene and is used to portray the Wilis during Act II. This technique is also used in Act II of La Sylphide. It is believed that this was a direct inspiration for Coralli when choreographing the Wilis’ dances (Cohen, 1998, 180).
The music of Giselle was composed by Adolphe Adam (1803-1856) and plays a significant role in the success of the production. At the time when it was composed, the music was unique in that it was “one of the few original creations, with only two borrowings” (Poesio, 1994, 688). The music from popular operas of the time was normally used to underscore a ballet. Adam uses five major leitmotifs that help in the dramatic development from Act I to Act II. These are the main themes that reoccur and underscore the primary characters as they dance.
The audience of the time was significant in the creation and development of this ballet. The Romantic Movement and the revolution in France altered the typical social audience class “from predominantly aristocratic to mainly upper-middle class” (Banes, 1998, 25). Consequently the themes and subject matter of Romantic ballets changed.
It did not intend to break new ground, either stylistic or thematic; rather, it was designed as a middle-class entertainment, appealing to the audiences taste for the sensuous and exotic.
Cohen, 1998, 180
Down through the years, the audience of the day has always held a certain amount of influence. This is particularly true when Marius Pepita (1818-1910) brought Giselle to Russian audiences. As suicide was a social taboo at the time in Russia, the circumstances surrounding Giselle’s death were altered so that she died of a weak heart (Cohen, 1998, 180).
The ballet has experienced a number of revisions as it manifested itself into the production we are all accustomed to today. The first major revision occurred even before Giselle’s premiere in 1841. Théohile Gautier (1811-1872) had envisaged that Act I would consist of a Wilis Ball, but Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint Georges’ (1799-1875) influence altered the plot and set Act I in a rustic village in the Rhineland. The next major revision occurred in 1884, when Pepita’s classical influence tailored Giselle for a Russian audience. His major change “was the expansion of the Wilis dances into a grand pas de wilis” (Cohen, 1998, 181). Another significant contribution he made was….
….at the beginning of the pas de deux of in Act II. The sequence of cambre, developee en avant, fouette, performed by Giselle while holding the partner’s hand, is the same as that of Aurora in the grand pas de deux of the third act of Sleeping Beauty, Petipa’s masterpiece.
Poesio, 1994, 693
There are other elements of the ballet that are rarely seen in modern productions, but are believed to have been part of the original: the nobles entered the village on horseback and Bathilde returned to reclaim Albrecht at the end of Act II. (Poesio, 1994, 179)
Giselle is a ballet that has stood the test of time from its Romantic birth, incorporating Classical influences from Marius Pepita to “earn its place among the staples of the ballet repertory” (Cohen, 1998, 177). It expounds all the elements we associate with Romantic ballet such as; emotional and supernatural themes, Ballet Blanc and the exposition of dance as an art form. Giselle, ou Les Wilis, truly is “the quintessence of the Romantic ballet” (Cohen, 1998, 177).
Banes, S. (1998) Dancing Women, London and New York: Routledge
Cohen, S. J., ed. (1998) International Encyclopaedia of Dance, Vol. III, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press
Poesio, G. (1994) Giselle. The Dancing Times Parts 1, 2 and 3, February, 454-462, March, 563-573 and April, 688-697
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