Little Honey and Isabelle are at His Majesty’s to see Giselle, the ultimate romantic ballet, that marked the apogee of a new aesthetic that saw tutus, white gauze, tulle and tarlatan take over the stage. Very exciting!
The girls are excited about the dancing, the story itself is a real shocker by any feminist standards. Even Gautier said, “the real, unique and eternal theme for ballet is the dance itself.”
Giselle is one of the oldest and most famous ballets in the classical canon. It has been performed by the greatest companies in the world, in the most iconic theaters, and by the most revered ballerinas. A success at its debut in Paris in 1841, the two-act story ballet has never fallen out of favor and remains the epitome and crowning achievement of the Romantic ballet era.
It’s also demanding, technically and artistically, with its pure but strenuous vocabulary of steps and the necessity of conveying — without words and without histrionics — dramatic emotional content and a detectable but potentially confusing plot line. So, for any company to take it on is both a challenge and a risk. Giselle has floored many a ballerina, including ballet royalty — in 2015 Bolshoi’s hyper-exquisite prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova come clattering down in a most unghostly fashion in Act 2; in 1988 Sylvie Guillem, the youngest ever étoile – or top-ranking dancer – at the Paris Opera ballet, fell over in her London debut while dancing with Nureyev no less; while in 1997, Royal Ballet’s Nicola Tranah, in the Queen of the Wilis’ most demanding solo, slipped and fell on her back center-stage, not once, but three times in a single scene. Tranah’s technique was never in doubt. The stage floor had become like a skating-rink, owing to rogue condensation caused by the dry-ice machine. Consequently the curtain came down, an apology was made, and after five minutes the show went on, sans dry ice, sans a flicker of anything amiss from Tranah, whose professional aplomb was quite astounding. However mortifying to those involved, it does the audience no harm at all to realise – with the shock of thudding bone and muscle – that these normally polished confections are indeed live, and thus prone to live error and injury.
No mishaps this evening, Chihiro Nomura took on the role of the tragic Giselle with emotional grace, charming with her incredible ability in the opening act and shifting to create drama in Act II’s darker moments.
A memorable evening!
The role of Giselle is one of the most sought-after in ballet. To win the role, a ballerina must have near perfect technique, outstanding grace, and great drama skills. Not only is Giselle one of the most beautiful ballets created, it is one of the most difficult to perform. The story has so much to tell without vocalizing, it demands a solid repertoire of strenuous dance acumen, strong theatrical presence, and graceful yet bold gestures to convey the story. It demands almost as much acting as it does dancing and can be compared to pantomime at its best.
Giselle is a young peasant girl who dies broken-hearted, having been betrayed by her lover, a duke in disguise. She joins the Wilis, supernatural spirits, who emerge at night to dance men to their deaths. But Giselle, selflessly forgiving, arduously protects her duplicitous lover Albrecht, until the Wilis retreat on the rising of the sun.
Giselle was Théophile Gautier’s tribute to Romanticism, inspired by Heine, Hugo, and the memory of La Sylphide. Gautier first came upon the idea for Giselle while reading Hugo’s poem Fantômes, about a beautiful Spanish girl who dances herself to death. To this, he added the image evoked by Heine of the Slavic wili or “night dancer”, a young woman who dies before her wedding day and rises from her grave at night to seduce unwitting male victims, whom she compels to dance to their deaths. Heine called wilis “dead bacchantes” and imagined them “dressed in their wedding gowns … with glittering rings on their fingers”; they reminded him of the intoxicating “longing for sweet sensuous oblivion” he had observed in Parisian women as they threw themselves with “fury” and “madness” into dancing at a ball.
Gautier took these images and, working with the librettist Vernoy de Saint-Georges, came up with a script. The ballet was set to a sweetly melodic, programmatic score by the composer Adolphe Adam, and the production was designed by Cicéri. For the choreography, the Paris Opera turned to its resident artist, Jean Coralli, an Italian by birth who had spent much of his career on the Austro-Italian circuit and in the Parisian boulevard theaters but who had been handpicked by Véron in 1831 to revitalize choreography at the Paris Opera. Coralli, however, did not accomplish the dances for Giselle on his own: he had considerable help from the dancer and ballet master Jules Perrot.
Perrot was another boulevard dancer. The son of Lyon silk workers, he began his career as a clown and gymnast. He was ugly, awkward, and athletic — a “gnome-like” creature, a “zephyr with the wings of a bat”. He was a natural virtuoso and had studied ballet with Auguste Vestris, who warned him to keep moving — fast — to hide his physical defects. He made his debut at the Paris Opera in 1830 to impressive acclaim, especially considering the sour response of audiences to male dancers at the time, but like Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler he soon left to embark on an international career. In Italy he met the young La Scala–trained dancer Carlotta Grisi. Grisi, a simple girl from a small Istrian village, was a significant talent. She had some of Taglioni’s natural physical luminosity, and Perrot immediately took her on and began to work with her. His own transparently athletic style made its mark on her technique: her dancing, as one critic put it, was “less Grecian” than Taglioni’s and had a more “muscular grace”. Perrot was Grisi’s teacher but also her dance partner and lover, and the two lived, traveled, and performed together. When they arrived in Paris, she became the star of Gautier’s Giselle.
The central axis of Giselle lay in three related Romantic obsessions — madness, the waltz, and an idealized Christian and medieval past. Madness and waltzing were widely associated with women. Insanity in women — men were apparently afflicted for different reasons — was often thought to be a quasi-sexual disease owed to menstruation and hormonal irregularities that weakened women and made them dangerously receptive to overpowering feelings. Women were thought to waltz and commit suicide for the same reasons that they read novels and were more adept than men at spinning lies (and acting). To Gautier and many French Romantics, however, this surfeit of emotion, whatever its cause, was no shortcoming. On the contrary, women had special access to poetry, beauty, and the much-coveted mysteries of the imagination.
The first act takes place in a “peasant valley” in a medieval German town where Giselle, a young village girl, has fallen in love with Albrecht, an old-world duke who poses as a villager in order to woo her. Giselle’s mother, however, senses trouble: her daughter’s gay and impulsive waltzing reminds her of the legendary ill-fated wilis.
Hilarion, a real villager who also loves Giselle, plots to reveal Albrecht’s true identity, and in due course the ruse is exposed: Giselle learns that Albrecht is actually betrothed to Bathilde, a glamorous woman of his own social rank. Devastated at his callous betrayal of their amorous vows, Giselle slowly, painfully, step by step, and in full view of the entire village, loses her mind. At the height of her frenzy, she grabs Albrecht’s sword and kills herself.
Up to this point everything is very real, if romantically expressed: Giselle’s love, betrayal, anger, and suicidal grief are painted in clear, clean strokes. But in the second act, all clarity disappears and we are plunged into a strange and ghostly fantasy, a misty world of intense memories and unbearable regrets. The action takes place at night in a chilly and humid moonlit forest, covered with “rushes, reeds, clumps of wild flowers and aquatic plants.” In the undergrowth, there is a white marble cross and tombstone inscribed with Giselle’s name. Myrtha, “a pale and transparent shade” and the queen of the wilis, appears and touches the flowers with her magic rosemary branch: they open and wilis rise out of them and flit, sylphide-like, from tree to branch. The wilis gather around their queen, and each performs a dance as if she were once again a young bride at a ball: there are Oriental and Indian dances, “bizarre” French minuets, and trance-inducing German waltzes. Finally Myrtha halts the fantastical ball and prepares for Giselle’s arrival.
Giselle emerges from her tomb wrapped in a shroud. When Myrtha touches her with her branch, the shroud falls away and wings sprout on her back as she rises, skimming the ground with newfound freedom. Albrecht, disheveled and nearly crazed with grief, arrives in search of her grave and sees his beloved. He attempts to catch her, but she melts away and glides between his fingers, all ephemera and chimera. In 1841, Grisi’s dance combined classical Sylphide-like steps with special effects: rigged to machines with pulleys and wheels, she whizzed through the air and across the floor with amazing speed. (A stunt dancer initially performed these tricks to test the equipment.) Exhausted and frustrated with his senseless pursuit of this specter, Albrecht sinks down behind Giselle’s tomb.
Hilarion appears and becomes the wilis’ first victim. Albrecht watches as these “ogresses of the waltz” force the terrified boy into a frenetic and dizzying dance, whirling him from one wili to the next until he reaches the edge of the lake and finally, still spinning, plunges into the watery abyss. Albrecht is next, but Giselle remains loyal and tries to save him by guiding him to the cross on her tombstone, which will protect him from the wilis’ devilish powers. Myrtha, however, has no compassion, and she forces Giselle to seduce Albrecht away from the cross with a voluptuous dance. He succumbs, and they join in a “rapid, airborne, frenetic” dance of exaltation and exhaustion, pausing only to fall half conscious into each other’s arms.
In the end, however, Albrecht is not saved by religion, supernatural forces, or his own (weak) will: it is the breaking dawn that sends the wilis “staggering” back into the trees and flowers whence they came. As Giselle sinks back into her flower-bed grave, however, she makes the final sacrifice: she points to Bathilde, who has approached with her retinue, and begs Albrecht to marry her. Devastated, Albrecht watches Giselle disappear into the earth and gathers to his heart the flowers that have engulfed her. He then turns and reaches out to the regal but forgiving Bathilde.
Giselle premiered at the Paris Opera on June 28, 1841 with Italian ballet dancer Carlotta Grisi as Giselle and French ballet dancer Lucien Petipa (brother of Marius Petipa) as Albrecht. With the establishment of the French Second Empire in 1852, dance lost its poetic aspect and took on a frivolous if enticingly erotic demimonde cast. Music hall and high-kicking, giddy virtuosity and taste for spectacle displaced the spiritual Romantic ballet: La Sylphide fell out of the Paris Opera repertory after 1858, and Giselle would have its last production ten years later.
The future La Sylphide and Giselle – and ballet – lay elsewhere. Giselle was staged in Russia in 1842 by a little-known French ballet master and in 1849 by Jules Perrot himself, assisted by the young French dancer Marius Petipa. When Petipa became ballet master of the Imperial Theaters, he kept the ballet alive, revising the ballet several times, in 1884, 1887, and 1899. His last revision was in 1903 for the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova, whose soft, lyrical style influenced this final version.
It was this Giselle that was finally returned to Paris by the Ballets Russes in 1910, with revised choreography by Michel Fokine and lavishly romantic sets by Alexandre Benois, and with Tamara Karsavina’s and Vaslav Nijinsky’s commanding presences as Giselle and Albrecht.
Vaslav Nijinsky is reputed to have been one of the most gifted male dancers in history. He joined the Imperial Ballet in 1900 and in 1909 formed part of the Ballets Russes company that Diaghilev took to Paris. He was dismissed from the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1910 for appearing on-stage during a performance as Albrecht in Giselle wearing tights without the modesty trunks, which were then obligatory for male dancers in the company. Following his dismissal from the Imperial Ballet, he became a permanent member of the Ballets Russes Company until 1913.
The freedom and fire of the Ballets Russes astonished the West. Diaghilev’s productions displayed to the world the integrated impact of a vigorous modernism expressed in the choreography of Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky and George Balanchine, the music of Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc and Sergei Prokofiev, and the set and costume designs of Léon Bakst, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, among others. The impact of the Ballets Russes reverberated throughout the art world: Olga Khokhlova, one of the company’s dancers, married Picasso in 1917, and many artists, among them John Singer Sargent, Auguste Rodin, and Marc Chagall, attempted to capture the sinuous motion of Vaslav Nijinsky, who was the epitome of the modern male dancer.
The Paris Opera took up Diaghilev’s lead and by the 1920s it had reclaimed Giselle (which originated in Paris in 1841 after all), staged its own all-Russian evenings of dance, and hired Russian dancers to renew the hitherto etiolated French tradition. At one point Nijinsky was even invited to choreograph for the company, and in 1929 George Balanchine was asked to stage a new ballet there. He fell ill with tuberculosis and had to step aside, but Serge Lifar, the Ukrainian dancer and Diaghilev protégé, replaced him and in 1931 was appointed artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet.
The premiere of Giselle took place in February 1932, a Shakespearian drama that Olga Spesivtzeva choreographed to perfection: “In this part, she was the greatest and most sublime dancer of the 20th century. In this ballet, which I danced for 25 years all over the world, I tried to ennoble the role of Prince Albert by infusing it with an ideal, of which his death in the name of love is the symbol”. Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau attended the premiere with tears in their eyes: “I, who had always struggled in my life, that night I had one of my finest triumphs”. Lifar gave Albrecht a deeper psychological dimension, which in turn gave male dancers a chance to develop artistically and well as technically.
In 1962, on a night that has gone down in dance history, the British prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn performed the title role in Giselle at London’s Royal Opera House with Rudolf Nureyev, the exciting young defector from the Soviet Union, in his début with the Royal Ballet. Their Giselle remains the height of emotion.
During the curtain call of their first performance of Giselle, Rudolf Nureyev accepted a rose from Margot Fonteyn and then instinctively fell to his knee at her feet and covered her hand with kisses. The audience went wild.
In 1971, Margot Fonteyn was guest star for Australian Ballet and toured Australia and danced divertissements from Giselle at His Majesty’s theatre in July. July of 1929 saw Anna Pavlova dance at His Majesty’s.
With Giselle and La Sylphide the mold for modern ballet was set: the ballerina was the undisputed protagonist of the art and male dancers were banned from the French stage or relegated to weak supporting roles. The pull between a central woman (supported by a large and sympathetic corps de ballet) and her lover, between the demands of the community and the secret desires of the individual, would structure ballet for over a century to come. At the same time, the ballerinas expanded the ballet’s expressive range, with jumps, pointe work, and extreme positions — steps and movements we recognize as fundamental to ballet today.
By the time the 1848 Revolution erupted in Paris, the wispy and transcendent Romantic ballet in France was all but dead. In the wake of the violence of 1848, audiences stayed home, and an outbreak of cholera made matters worse. The Paris Opera was increasingly entrenched. It had barely deigned to offer a position to Jules Perrot, among the most talented ballet masters of his generation, and when the offer did finally come Perrot turned it down and took a position at Russian Imperial Court instead. In 1848, Perrot was invited to St. Petersburg by the ballerina Fanny Elssler to stage Giselle with the Imperial Ballet.
Perrot married a Russian woman and stayed in St. Petersburg for the next eleven years. In Russia, Perrot took his craft and enlarged its frame, expanding the French Romantic ballet to a scale befitting the Imperial capital. And inside the protected walls of the Russian Imperial Theatres Perrot quietly handed Marius Petipa the French Romantic tradition. Petipa had arrived in St. Petersburg from Paris in 1847 and lived in the shadow of Jules Perrot for the first ten years. Together with Lev Ivanov, Petipa went on to choreograph ballets to exquisite scores by Tchaikovsky and created three enduring favorites in The Sleeping Beauty (1890), The Nutcracker (1892), and Swan Lake (1895). Most of the dancers who performed in these ballets were graduates of the Imperial Ballet School, which was known for its strict adherence to classical technique.
By century’s end, however, the Russian moment in ballet was over. Petipa and Ivanov’s generation passed abruptly from the scene. Marius Petipa was Russia’s last foreign ballet master, Lev Ivanov its first native voice. In their wake came a new — and newly confident — generation of Russian dancers and ballet masters, including Alexander Gorsky and Agrippina Vaganova; Mikhail Fokine, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky, all of whom graduated from the Imperial Theatre School at or near the turn of the century. These dancers did not shy from authority: Gorsky took charge of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and Fokine would eventually assume the mantle of the St. Petersburg company. Henceforth ballet’s greatest stars would be Russian.
The Russian dancers had a technique and artistry that was far superior to anything in Europe at the time, and Parisian audiences clamoured for more. Innovative, bold choreography (Michael Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky) and unsurpassed virtuosity, notably, from male dancers (Nijinsky) exposed the archaic style of the Paris Opera. Thankfully, the Ballets Russes also sparked Paris’ appetite for dance again and a new century for ballet would unfold.