Michael Seaver on how 'Giselle', a tale of wronged peasants, dastardly noblemen and jilted ghosts, became a ballet classic.
When Théophile Gautier sat down to write his synopsis to Giselle he would hardly have thought that 150 years later it's storyline would be a battleground for conflicting cultural and political ideologies that, by extension, are applied to ballet as an artform. Depending on whom you read Giselle is either a blatant exploitation of a working-class woman by an aristocratic man or a masterwork that offers the ballerina a role as important as that of Hamlet within theatre.
Its full title is Giselle, ou Les Wilis, the Wilis being spirits of girls who have died as a result of being jilted by faithless lovers. In Giselle's case this is Albrecht, an aristocrat who is disguised as the peasant Loys. Giselle loses her reason and dies of a broken heart when Hilarion, a real peasant who is in love with her, reveals Albrecht's true identity and the duchess Bathilde confirms he is her fiancé. In the second act, Albrecht visits Giselle's grave and falls prey to les Wilis who seek their revenge by "dancing to death" any man they meet at night. Giselle, now a wili, is ordered by the Queen of the Wilis to kill Albrecht but luring him to the safety of the cross on her grave, she saves his life and love prevails.
As a plot it has much in common with other dramas and ballets of the period, particularly the earlier Les Sylphides. There was an outbreak of scenes featuring madness on stage around this time in operas (such as Lucia di Lammermoor and I Puritani), plays and ballets. Writer Susan Au says the equation of beauty, youth and madness also owed something to the revival of interest in Shakespeare's plays, particularly Hamlet. There were also many references to nocturnal dances of death in art and literature and the introduction of gaslight into theatres allowed atmospheric depictions of the otherworldly. Wilis were popularised through Heinrich Heine's book De l'Allemagne and influenced other artists: Puccini's first opera, Le Villi, produced in 1884, is based on the same legend.
Like Les Sylphides, it has a first half of peasant character dances and a second half full of supernatural comings and goings with a battle between the mortal and immortal. This narrative is reflected in the movement: mime predominates in the first half (which outlines the plot and the social hierarchies) and then pure dance takes over in the second act for the more dramatic tensions between love and death.
The reasons are as much practical as ideological. When Gautier's synopsis was accepted by the director of the Théâtre de l'Académie Royal de Musique in Paris, it would have been normal for him to address aspects of the production, for example hiring a choreographer and commissioning music. However, Gautier wanted to keep control over artistic decisions, particularly in casting Giselle. He was in love with dancer Carlotta Grisi, and, hoping to increase her esteem for him, showed the synopsis to her mentor and lover, choreographer Jules Perrot. Both dancer and choreographer were impressed with the storyline and there was an added incentive for Perrot, who coveted the job of choreographer at the theatre. He choreographed many of his lover's scenes, including the important pas de deux in act two, while Jean Coralli, the workmanlike resident choreographer at the theatre, worked on the mimed scenes and group dances in act one. Perrot remained uncredited in the programme so that he wouldn't be entitled to any royalties.
A successful opening on June, 28th, 1841, led to performances in London in 1842, Russia in 1843 and Boston in 1946, but in spite of continued success and a reputation as "a ballet-dancers ballet", it has constantly niggled academics and critics. John Chapman sees it as an example of middle-class entertainment, "an illusive, other-worldly vision in a classical language with erotic undertones". This accusation is pertinent to the original ending, where as dawn breaks, the duchess Bathilde returns to the graveyard to reclaim Albrecht. In the words of Susan Au, "the more dangerous aspects of Romanticism are kept firmly in check: the mad girl dies, midnight terrors are dispelled by daylight, and the everyday world exerts its benevolent control".
Evan Anderson argues that Giselle, and ballet generally, perpetuates the ideological aims of a dominant social order. Giselle, by forgiving and rescuing her aristocratic lover who betrays her, effectively condones his behaviour. And what of Albrecht? Is he a hero or a villain? Those who defend the ballet see it as a thing of great beauty, and choose not to question or explore these political questions. Giselle saves Albrecht because she is truly in love with him and doesn't need a payback for his betrayal. Also the idea of art for arts sake, attributed to Gautier and espoused by many artists and critics after 1830, is paralleled by the conception of Giselle as a ballet about dancing. The Romantic cult of the artist had resulted in the separation of art and life; to many artists, art was primarily the pursuit of the beautiful rather than an agent of social or political change.
But most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle, a position probably best summed up by Jody Bruner: "Any pleasure I feel is tinged with guilt, and any judgment I make is weakened by the rapture I experience at the most powerful choreographic moments."
And there are many of these moments. The climactic pas de deux in act two unravels with a solo for Giselle, alone and vulnerable in centre stage. Her movement draws Albrecht to her and their duet, with full and expressive développés, shows the strength of their love. Similarly, the wonderfully crafted dances for the corps de ballet are never used as wallpaper for solos, but are an integral part of the ballet.
Those attending next week's performances can make up their own mind whether the ballet is politically incorrect or breathtakingly beautiful. And it must be stated that claims of an Irish première by the producers are a cheeky and devious attempt to attract publicity. Minimum investigation would reveal many Irish performances, most recently an old-fashioned but full-blooded production by the Ukrainian State Ballet in 1994 and seven productions by the Cork City Ballet between 1957 and 1992.
Re-interpretations have taken place, in Ireland with Michael Keegan Dolan's recent Giselle and Cathy O'Kennedy's Giselle: The Presence of the Past, and internationally by Mats Ek's 1982 production that set act two in an asylum, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole Giselle and Myra Kinch's 1953 satirical ballet Giselle's Revenge. The various interpretations for Giselle and Albrecht are a who's who of ballet: Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch, Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, Yvette Chauriré and Serge Lifar, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn. Withstanding scrutiny, revisionism and prevailing political ideologies, Giselle has and will continue to remain in central place in ballet repertoire throughout the world.
The Russian State Ballet, with guest soloist Monica Loughman, perform Giselle at The Point Theatre, Dublin, on December 11th and 14th