Giselle

Ok let’s talk about Giselle.
It was not what I expected.
But first, before I explain that, here is pretty much what happens in Giselle in case you’ve never seen it before either:
There’s this guy named Albrecht who is a Count and is engaged, but he’s been disguising himself as a peasant and going down to the local village for some side-action.
Yeah, he’s a jerk.
So he pursues Giselle, who is described by the program as an innocent peasant girl with a weak heart who loves to dance and sew. Yes, the program notes really say she loves to sew. Not relevant to the story in any way. Just one of those wtf details.
Giselle is totally in love with Albrecht, and furthermore, she believes she is engaged to the big faker.
She has a big solo that says, “wheeee! Love!!!!!” that includes something I’ve read about in a few different interviews with ballerinas: the notorious hops en pointe.
Apparently the hops en pointe are one of the particular challenges of dancing Giselle. They are super difficult, physically. It’s a series of hops on one pointed foot with the knee bent and the other leg up in the air, hop hop hop hop hop down a diagonal, and now that I’ve seen it live, I gotta say, it is not pretty. So I don’t get the point of the hops en pointe. If they’re really hard to do and they look bad…..?
But anyway, then there’s this peasant guy who is in love with Giselle. His name is Hilarion. Which is such a ridiculous name that I can’t even make jokes because his name breaks my brain.
Giselle is not into Hilarion.
Because she’s in love with Albrecht, The Big Lying Liar.
Hilarion is pissed about being rejected by Giselle and goes into the gardening shed where Count Liar Pants has stashed his royal sword and horn, and finds them and brings them out and shows them to the whole village as proof that the Lying Count is a lying count, and Giselle sees this and then just to further twist the knife the fiancé shows up, and Giselle totally goes mad with the shock of Albrecht’s betrayal and her heart explodes and she dies.
In some versions she kills herself with Count Liar-Face’s sword, but in the Royal New Zealand Ballet it’s her heart.
Boom. Act I is over.
Act II is where all the good stuff is.
Which I think is a sad truth of story ballets: you need the first act to set up the story for the second act, but you spend the whole first act wishing they would hurrying up with the damned party (Nutcracker) and get out to the forest already (Swan Lake).
This is just a theory, clearly I need to see more story ballets to test this theory.
So in Act II we get to see the Wilis, who wear those gorgeous long romantic tutus with the soft tulle veils we’ve all seen in a million ballet photos. So beautiful. Like sad brides. Which they are, they are the spirits of maidens betrayed by love.
And the name Wili also breaks my brain so I can’t make any jokes about that either beyond the extremely feeble Gives Me The Willies Ha Ha.
Anyway, this is the part where the ballet went in a direction I didn’t expect.
After some excellently spooky business with Hilarion running in terror from Giselle’s grave, (dude, what are you doing out there at night in the first place?) Act II begins with Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, dancing by herself in the moonlight. And she doesn’t seem bone-chilling or ominous or hell-bent on retribution the way the program describes her. Likewise the Wilis don’t seem despondent or vengeful.
Seeing them dancing, alone, together, in the moonlight, the biggest feeling that came to me was Freedom.
Freedom from weak hearts, freedom from boyfriends that lie.
Freedom from ever having to take off that beautiful veil and put on an apron.
Freedom. To just dance.
It was the music was really throwing me here.
I expected spooky, frantic, tragic, angry, a minor key at very least, but as long as it was just the girls on stage the music was happy and light and lovely. And Vibrant. Like finally in death these girls were getting to live.
And for a minute I thought maybe composers just had a different feeling for what sounded heavy back in 1841 when the music for Giselle was written, but no, the music was audibly scary to my 21rst century ears when Hilarion runs in terror from Giselle’s grave, and later when the Wilis go after him and dance him to death.
Which – sidebar here- seemed really unfair. I mean, yes, Hilarion was kind of a dick, but on a scale of one to Albrecht he was barely a three.
So then I thought maybe the music didn’t have to be scary because maybe in 1841 the idea of young women hanging out unsupervised in the woods at night was already scary enough?
Act II is about Albrecht visiting Giselle’s grave, (also at night, wtf) and suddenly sensing her spirit. And sure enough, there she is, because Myrtha has summoned her to join the Wilis and seek vengeance on men. Or dance happily in the moonlight while looking pretty. Whichever.
Giselle and Albrecht dance together, then the Wilis show up and Myrtha commands them to kill Albrecht to death but Giselle’s pure spirit protects him and she manages to keep him alive until day breaks and the Wilis power is broken.
(I feel kind of bad about revealing what happens in the end! Which is silly! 1841 this thing came out! I don’t really need to post a spoiler alert!)
The pas de deux between Giselle and Albrecht was interesting technically because they don’t touch each other for the first little bit of it. This gives a lot of power to when he finally does touch her and lifts her overhead.
But emotionally I really didn’t like this pas de deux! I wanted to see Giselle punish Albrecht a little! It seemed so wrong for her to die of a broken heart and then receive him without the slightest pause. I mean, sure, he’s there because he’s sorry, but it’s not like he’s going to stay. After he cries on her grave a little he’s going on with his life, most likely going on with his marriage.
She’s still dead.
I wasn’t seeing pure love, more like her heart wasn’t the only thing about her that was weak.
I wanted to see her hesitate, mistrust him, be angry, punish him, make him understand what she lost when he lied, make him earn the forgiveness he came to her grave to find. And then, Then, when the Wilis show up, then her love bursts through her other complex feelings and she protects him because she can’t stand to see him hurt.
Because Love!!!
And also maybe she feels a little possessive. Maybe she’s like, “Hands off, bitches. If anyone deserves to kill this one it’s me, and I say he lives.”
It just, ugh, disappointed me emotionally.
But visually Act II is stunningly gorgeous, you get all kinds of fantastic moments like when the Wilis refuse to hear Giselle’s pleas for Albrecht’s life, and they turn their heads away and stop-sign their hands at her.
And when they bourré across stage, two rows weaving into each other, so magical.
The royal New Zealand Ballet adds a final moment, which is truly chilling,
And here I will say SPOILER ALERT in case you are going to see the show:
Albrecht is now an old man. He returns to Giselle’s grave, and as the curtain lowers the Wilis come for him, moving in time with distant church bells, one step with each toll.
The curtain lowers before they reach him. It is truly chilling and ominous and inevitable and terrifying, all the emotions I wasn’t getting from the rest of the show.
An excellent ending.

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About adultbeginner

Had my first ballet class Ever at the advanced age of thirty-two. Yikes.
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28 Responses to Giselle

  1. Ashley says:

    If you don’t think the hops en pointe are gorgeous you need to YouTube Natalia Osipova or Svetlana Zakharova dance it. That is not a variation just any ballerina can dance and make look elegant and effortless. It’s a shame you didn’t see a dancer do it so that it looked amazing like it’s supposed to.

    • Just did some youtubing and the verdict is: I just don’t like the hops.
      Since I was lucky enough to see the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production twice last weekend, I got to see the hops from two different vantage points: back of orchestra and from above in the second balcony, and I thought Lucy Green was lovely and light and happy and radiant with love and filled the stage with exuberance both times, but even after the different view points and the youtubing, I”m just a way bigger fan of the pique turns that immediately follow the hops.
      Thanks for sending me to see more dancers perform that scene though, it’s really interesting to see variations in tone, and to see all the different takes on peasant costume.

  2. Hops en pointe are hard. We did a strengthening exercise for that at my intensive and it was tres hard. Amazingly no only are you in plié on the supporting foot but your foot is also bent. So really your foot isn’t pointed, it’s just your toes. A lot of leg strength. Not visually appealing at first, but done correctly with the way it’s done in mind = mind blown.

    Giselle is one of my fav ballet stories. Myrtha is my homegirl, I love her coda. Man who broke hearts- I make you dance to death!!! Hahahaha.. She’s cool.

  3. bronwensw says:

    ” I wanted to see Giselle punish Albrecht a little! It seemed so wrong for her to die of a broken heart and then receive him without the slightest pause. I mean, sure, he’s there because he’s sorry, but it’s not like he’s going to stay. After he cries on her grave a little he’s going on with his life, most likely going on with his marriage.”
    If Giselle were the type to punish she would’ve become a wili. Myrtha couldn’t let go of her anger, which is my opinion is weaker than Giselle. Letting go of anger is the hardest thing in the world, and it’s a testament to Giselles purity. I really dislike Albrecht, but I like to think that for the rest of his life he will mourn and regret letting the purest person in the world, who loved him so absolutely, die. Perhaps that is worse punishment than the release of death.
    At the end here in Birmingham, Giselle rises up to heaven rather than stepping into her grave. That, to me, represents freedom; not dancing for eternity. If the men are forced to dance until they die, then imagine how tortured these women are dancing forever. The music is so light because it is echoing, I imagine, how they felt when they were in love. They relive the love and heartbreak night after night after night. This is just my take on it, though.
    I hope you get to see a version with a corps and Giselle who really feel the story, it doesn’t really sound like you got to see the best!
    Those hops shouldn’t feel heavy and ugly, that kicking foot is Giselles shy little expression of happiness at first, then it turns into the full blown hops when she really is declaring how in love she is.

  4. Teri says:

    Oh how I enjoyed this!
    Loved.
    More ballet stories, please, from AB’s POV.

  5. fbgoodman@aol.com says:

    hard to believe you never even went to the library or you tube to watch giselle or any story ballets

    harder even to believe you are so cruel and vindictive and mean spirited

    and harder even to believe you think that what she did demonstrates is WEAKNESS of all things.

    i guess even with your baby and great hubs you have never really loved and never sacrificed

    because of a lie you think he merits death and torture?

    i have lost all respect for you

  6. Janet says:

    I would like to see this ending. I am used to the ending where a young Albrecht is left mourning at the grave.
    As for Act II taking place at night … Spirits in white are a lot harder to see during the day. Hilarion’s fate is an example of what the Willis do to the men that they catch. I do not think that the jerk factor is considered.
    Giselle is in love, and that is what stops Myrtha and the Willis from dancing Albrecht to death. Albrecht will live with the fact that he has been a colossal cad. The RNZB ending seems to reinforce this fact. Albrecht is also not exempt from the Willis – he’ll get his due if he is captured again.
    As for the classics first act. Some are not too bad (Sleeping Beauty). The multiple solo and group pieces in others (Puss in Boots, the Bluebird, and the regional dances) are good at times, and a bore at others. Sometimes entire Acts can be presented without the whole ballet being performed (Kingdom of the Shades, for example). Seeing the whole ballet can help put the “good bits” in context.
    Still love your blog.

  7. I just loved reading what you think about everything ballet!
    I’ve seen Giselle, too, a couple of years ago… Scalla of Milan came here and I have to admit… it’s not a choreography that I love. Of course, the Willys (willies? never sure) are so pretty, but boy…
    I think it’s all Swan Lake’s fault. To be more specific, the fool’s variation in the first act. I’ve seen the Kirov/Mariinsky dance it, and that short russian man who played the fool was so energetic, jumped so high and did everything so perfectly (the whole theater came down when he was done) that I think I just go to any ballet expecting that feeling. I want the choreography to be so pretty and to move me so much that I won’t be able to help myself and just stand up in ovation after every character’s part.
    Yes, I expect too much. I can’t help myself there!

  8. Deborah says:

    This is the best libretto of Giselle that I have ever seen. Seriously. Brilliantly funny and also just brilliant w/ regard to the freedom-to-dance-and-be-happy-in-death/life thing.

  9. RO says:

    Ohhh what a lovely ending! The ending I saw was much less haunting. I love the story of Giselle, even though it’s actually a pretty weird story.

  10. I’m glad I’m not the only one who is always rooting for the wilis. Love stories are cute (though creepy when half the couple is dead), but I’m all about a bunch of crazy dancing women bringing down their oppressors (I mean I know murder isn’t the best answer, and the whole having to be dead thing kind of weakens the empowerment argument, but I still like to think of it that way).

    Also, I have mixed feelings about hops on pointe. They do have a nice airy quality when done well, but aesthetically they are sort of weird with the crunched feet. I mean, you’re basically just ignoring all the principles of ballet technique and aesthetics so that you can jump on your toes. I have never found them particularly difficult, which is also weird. I feel like the crazy banana feet that a lot of professionals have don’t really work for this step.

  11. robin says:

    what a fun read : )
    you should youtube gelsey kirkland’s act 1 giselle variation – she, and her hops on pointe are impeccable.(personally i always found them difficult)

    • Hers was my favorite of all the youtubes I just youtubed, thanks for sending me her way. I’m still not sold on the hops though. Maybe part of it is the way the music kind of pauses for it, like it’s saying, “See? This is a virtuoso moment!”
      Which I get that it is physically, I just don’t see the aesthetic pay-off.

      • robin says:

        I agree the line of a plié on pointe is not that attractive, but when done nice & light I enjoy them. Glad you liked gelsey, she’s my fave in this also.

  12. Peeps, this is one of the fascinating things about having a blog:
    You really can’t predict which posts will get you called out for having “never really loved and never sacrificed.”
    It’s a mystery!
    On another note, I hated Frozen.
    I only bring that up because I figure it’s a way more fun jumping-off point for examining my capacity for love.

    • I only liked the snow man, otherwise I’m surprised it won over the Miyazaki film. Seeing as the studio still followed their mission and did everything by hand. Now they’re no longer making films *sigh*

      Favorite Disney princess movie though? Sleeping beauty.

  13. Janet says:

    I think that the hops on point have become a “tradition” since a famous Russian ballerina added them to the Act I solo. Not sure what else has been added, but SF Ballet has added an Act I solo for Loys (Albrecht), and changed the peasant pas de deux to a pas de cinque. Helgi Tommasson believed that the male dancers needed to be featured more. (Read that in the program notes available on the SF Ballet website).

  14. Paulina says:

    I am not sure about Giselle. I like the ballet, but not the two main characters Giselle and Albrecht. I used to have a soft spot for Myrtha for the the reasons some ladies already stated (I think most women can relate to her somehow, even if most women will not admit to such thoughts. After all, we are expected to be gentle and forgiving like Giselle, aren’t we?) Then there is Hilarion. I used to pity him, but did not like him. Most dancers I saw as Hilarion did not seem to like him either, neither did the choreographers or the author of the libretto. Recently I have seen someone as Hilarion whom I never expected to and my opinion about H. is changing.
    It might be fever (I am at home with a bad cold) but I just started to dream of Hilarion eloping with Myrtha;-).

  15. Jane Lambert says:

    Very interesting analysis.

    I first saw the ballet in about 1970 and I have seen many great ballerinas dance that role including Margot Fonteyn, Antoinette Sibley, Carla Fracci and most recently Natalia Osipova on 18 Jan of this year. I have seen many productions over the years mainly by the Royal Ballet in the Royal Opera House but also by leading visiting companies such as American Ballet Theatre and the Kirov/Mariinsky. I also saw a very good production (I think by ABT) when I was a graduate student in the USA either at the Music Centre in Los Angeles or at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.

    There are many variations between different productions. In some cases (such as the current one at Covent Garden) Giselle kills herself with Albrecht’s sword which is why she is buried in unconsecrated ground and in others (such as the one you saw) she just dies. In most productions Hilarion dies but I remember one by a US or Australian company (it was long ago and I can’t remember which) he survives and the curtain falls on Albrecht and Hilation shaking hands.

    Giselle is my favourite ballet both for the music and the choreography but I find the story deeply unsettling. I can only take Act II by putting the story out of my mind and imagining that it was choreographed as an entirely abstract work by Balanchine. As it happens, Balanchine produced two lovely ballets in the Romantic tradition in Serenade and Emeralds in Jewels which have all the beauty of Act II but none of the monkeying around with the spirit world.

    Because the Royal Ballet is dancing Giselle this month there has been quite a lot of discussion on the ballet in England and you might like to follow some of the discussion on the BalletCo Forum thread on the ballet at http://www.balletcoforum.com/index.php?/topic/5789-the-royal-ballet-giselle-2014/ I have contributed to that discussin both there and in my own blog http://jelterps.blogspot.co.uk/.

  16. kaija24 says:

    I enjoy Act II with the Willis and the otherworldly setting so much better than Act 1 with the peasants cavorting about. And I would much rather dance Myrtha than Giselle! Good thing there’s different views and something for us all, eh? :)

  17. Katie L says:

    Giselle’s one of my favorite ballets and this was one of my favorite breakdowns of it. I’m still laughing over Count Liar Pants.

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