Written by Leilani Tian
One of the great ballets of the 19th century is GISELLE, the story of a fragile girl who dies of a broken heart but finds the strength and love to forgive the man who broke it. It’s a timeless tale that has moved audiences for more than a century. The magnitude of the ballet can be found not only in the audience it touches but also the dancers who dream of dancing in it. The role of “Giselle” is one of the most sought-after roles for ballerinas.
As each great piece of art is influenced by the time period in which it was created, the plot and choreographic style of Giselle are reflections of ballet’s Romantic Era. With Ballet Austin’s production of Giselle just around the corner, we look at the origins of this ballet, recounting the historical context, choreographic style, and the influence of pointe shoes on the classic.
What makes Giselle a Romantic ballet?
The creation of Giselle was part of a larger cultural and artistic movement called the Romantic period. Literature, music, architecture, and art created at this time rejected the rationality and objectivity of the Enlightenment period and emphasized the humanness, subjectivity, and the beauty of the natural world. A romantic ballet in two acts, Giselle was choreographed in the early 19th century by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, with music by Adolphe Adam. It first premiered in 1841 at the Paris Opera House with Italian dancer Carlotta Grisi as “Giselle.”
The ghostly nymphs called “wilas” from Slavic mythology inspired the “Wilis” in Giselle, supernatural women who died before their wedding day and danced men to death as a form of spiritual justice. The Wilis can be seen as an example of the Romantic conception of the sublime — an evocation of terror, awe, and danger.
Historical Context: Ballet for the Middle Class
During the French Revolution, the targeted ballet audience shifted from the aristocrats to the growing middle class. This was reflected in more ballets about everyday people, places, and activities. The ballet La Sylphide was one of them and would have an influence on Giselle which was created 10 years later. In both ballets, there are elements characteristic of Romantic period ballets; ballerinas wore white bodices with tutus and there was a prevalence of supernatural beings like sylphs and nymphs.
When Ballerinas started dancing on their toes
The choreographic style of Giselle, like many Romantic ballets, was influenced by advancements in the pointe shoe. The Romantic period saw the inception of ballerinas dancing on pointe shoes, with Italian Marie Taglioni as the first dancer to dance en pointe, on the tips of the toes, in La Sylphide. Whereas pointe shoes nowadays are structured in a way in which layers and layers of glue and canvas provide stability and support, the shoes during the Romantic Era were merely satin ballet slippers darned at the tips of the toes.
This is reflected in the choreography of Giselle, as dancers are not en pointe for long periods of time. The etherealness of dancing on the tips of toes, appearing as if the ballerinas are floating at times, supplements the portrayal of supernatural characters like the “Wilis” in Giselle. This was representative of the increasing emphasis on the power of the spiritual world during the Romantic Era.
Choreographic Style of Giselle:
From a forward tilt of the upper body to rounded arms, the choreographic style of Giselle reflects a humanness characteristic of the Romantic era. The style suggests a softness which is presented particularly in the upper body and the alignment of the head.
As a whole, the ballet’s movement is off-balance, a contrast from the uprightness of ballets made later in the 19th century. Along with acting and mime, movement is used to carry on the plot in a story ballet. In Giselle, the softness and humanness of the choreographic style supplements the story’s very human themes of tragedy, love, and loss.
See Ballet Austin in it’s 2018/19 season-ending production of GISELLE, This Mother’s Day weekend, May 10–12, at the Long Center. Four shows, including two evening performances and two, weekend matinees. Tickets starting at $15 at https://balletaustin.org/performances/giselle2019 #GiselleATX