Giselle Ballet: A Heartbreaking Story that Never Grows Old
Giselle is one of the best loved ballets of all time. This romantic ballet has enchanted audiences for almost 3 centuries now.
Second in popularity only to Swan Lake, Giselle is a true classic. It is also my own favourite ballet story, and the inspiration for my novel Coronet of Straw. So today I’m delighted to answer some of your questions about the plot and characters of the ballet Giselle.
When Was Giselle Written and Who Composed the Music?
The ballet was written a little before its first performance in 1841 in Paris, so it is already almost 280 years old. It starred the ballerina Carlotta Grisi in the title role of Giselle. The French ballet was titled: Giselle, ou les Willis. Adèle Dumilâtre danced the role of Myrtha (in real life, she later married a count). The role of Albrecht, the nobleman who misleads Giselle, was danced by Lucien Petipa. Lucien was the brother of the famous ballet master Marius Petipa.
The composer for the Giselle ballet score was Adolphe Adam. He wrote 39 operas and a number of ballets, but people today remember him for Giselle and for his Christmas carol O Holy Night.
The libretto (story) was came from Théophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. As I explain in Coronet of Straw, they were inspired in turn by the work of German Romantic era poet and writer Heinrich Heine. The idea that Giselle would die from too much dancing was taken from a poem by Victor Hugo.
The ballet choreography for Giselle was by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. This duo also created the ballet Ondine. Jules Perrot is also famously captured in the Degas painting The Ballet Class.
What Does Giselle Mean?
Giselle is a French name, although is more usually written Gisèle. The ballet was created, as we’ve seen, by Frenchmen and first performed at the Paris Opera, so it’s no surprise it takes the French pronunciation. It was a popular Medieval name in France, and even belonged to a princess: the daughter of French king Charles III. The roots of the name Giselle are Germanic. It comes from gisil which means pledge or hostage.
The name Giselle is no longer popular in France but has seen a surge in popularity in the United States. This is largely thanks to the Disney character of the same name, and to models and celebrities named Giselle or Gisele.
How to pronounce Giselle: the name begins with a soft sound, rather like a combination of the j in jump with a sh sound. Avoid pronouncing it with a hard g, like the g in gazelle.
Where is Giselle Set?
Although it is fictional, the ballet Giselle very likely takes place in the Rhineland. This was the homeland and inspiration for the poet/writer Heinrich Heine, and it was his work that inspired the story.
The Rhineland is today part of Germany, although Germany did not exist as a unified country at that time. It is a wine growing area, which is why the first act of the ballet is set on the day of the grape harvest festival. You can find out more about the Rhineland of this era in the novel Cornet of Straw (US edition) / (UK edition).
What is the Giselle Ballet Story About?
In short, the original Giselle story is about a village girl who falls in love with a handsome stranger. She believes he is simply a village boy, but he is actually a nobleman (Count Albrecht) in disguise. His secret is discovered by a gamekeeper who is himself in love with Giselle. When he reveals the deception of Albrecht, Giselle is heartbroken. She goes mad with grief and dies.
The second act of the ballet involves the Wilis or Willis, who are ghost maidens. When Albrecht shows up at Giselle’s grave to mourn her, they join together to take revenge. They intend to do this by making him dance until he drops dead. But Giselle rises from her grave and her ghost protects Albrecht, sharing his burden. In this way, the dance only exhausts him and doesn’t kill him.
The Giselle ballet ends with Albrecht still alive, but the ghost of Giselle returned to her grave, never to rise again. It is Giselle’s forgiveness that saves Albrecht, and the message is one of true love conquering all. Even the undead!
That’s just a quick summary of the ballet story. You’ll find a more detailed account of both act one and act two in the next post.
Why is Giselle a White Ballet / a Romantic Ballet?
The white ballet (ballet blanc in French) dates from the Romantic era, and has at least one act where the female dancers are dressed all in white. They normally represent spirits of some kind. In Giselle, the second act is the ‘white act’ and the dancers enter veiled. They typically wear floaty, long ballet skirts, to appear more ghostlike.
White ballets were popular in the 1800s. Another famous ‘ballet blanc’ is Les Sylphides. The Romantic era ballet was not simply ‘romantic’ in the sense that (like many ballets) it had a love story at its heart. It also had a fascination with other-wordly spirits. The combination of women dancing in gauzy white dresses with gas lighting made ghostly scenes possible.
Who are the Characters in Giselle?
In the original story of Giselle, you will always find the village girl (Giselle), her nobleman-in-disguise lover (Albrecht), and the Queen of the Wilis (Myrtha).
Other key characters include Giselle’s mother (Bertha) whose mime warns of the dangers of Giselle dancing, and the jealous gamekeeper (Hilarion or Hans).
Note: sometimes the names of the characters change according to the country in which it is being performed. After all, the ballet is almost 300 years old and has been danced in most of the countries in the world!
In Act One of Giselle, the cast includes the noble hunting party which has at its head a Duke and his daughter Bathilde (who is betrothed to Albrecht). There are also many peasants, and often there will be among them dancers who have a first act solo, pas de deux or pas de trois (3).
In Act Two of the ballet, the Wilis include a couple of more senior or important Wilis, who are sometimes named as Moyna and Zulme.
So there you have it: a brief introduction to the original Giselle ballet story, characters and origins. If you’d like a more in-depth look at the Giselle synopsis / libretto and to see video clips from act one and act two, head on over to my next post.
Or find out more about Coronet of Straw, the novel inspired by the ballet and its origins.
You can also try your hand at making a Giselle-themed ballerina paper cut!