Giselle is heartbroken when she discovers that Albrecht, the man she loves, is in reality a nobleman betrothed to another woman. Devastated by grief and her intense feeling of yearning, the young peasant girl succumbs to madness and dies. She joins the ghostly spiritual wilis, young brides-to-be who have died before their nuptials and who condemn men to dance themselves to death.
What audiences connect with is the human element in the story: love, and betrayal in love, is a common, enduring theme. In Giselle, we see a young woman who not only realizes the truth, but by Act 2, she moves past that, and accepts her duplicitous lover.
There have been many Giselles for the ages, including Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina, but Carlotta Grisi debuted in the dual title role of this ballet that still represents an acting challenge to ballerinas today: the sensual and playful peasant girl of the first act and her transformation into a wilis in the second act.
On January 12, 1915, critic Akim Volynsky wrote in his review in the newspaper Birzhevye vedomosti, describing Giselle as a “monument of high art on the stage… a fantastic work.” He raves about Grisi’s performance: “With her childlike face and the expression of guileless joy in her eyes, Grisi was beyond praise.” In Giselle’s famous extended mad scene, he cites the ballerina’s reading and execution of the scene as “tender, elegant, almost sweet confusion.”
Writer Jennifer Homans in her book, Apollo’s Angels, adroitly contextualizes Giselle as “the first modern ballet.” She describes how “the French Romantics invented ballet as we know it today: they broke the hold on dance of words, pantomime, and the story ballet and completely shifted the axis of the art – it was no longer about men, power, and aristocratic manners, classical gods and heroic deeds; or even quaint village events and adventures.” Instead, writes Homans, “It was an art of women devoted to charting the misty inner worlds of dreams and the imagination.”
Homans posits that what mattered in Giselle and other Romantic ballets were bold new developments using “movement, gesture, and music to capture an evanescent memory- fleeting thought – to give concrete physical and theatrical form to the… immaterial stuff of the mind.” And so, in an evolutionary turn, the dance itself became the thing.
Written by Philip Szporer