The Poetry of Ballet

Classic Arts Features   The Poetry of Ballet
Margaret Putnam shows us why Giselle, which returns to Houston ballet in June, is the most enduring of Romantic ballets.

Poets fall in love and write sonnets. Seldom, however, does a poet fall in love and write a ballet.

At the height of the Romantic era, Théophile Gautier did just that. He fell in love with the 21-year-old Carlotta Grisi when she made her debut in Paris, and began dreaming of a way for a part that would make her as famous as the reigning ballerina, Marie Taglioni.

The result: Giselle, ou les Wilis, the most famous and most enduring of Romantic ballets.

It had all the requisites: an idealized rustic setting in act 1 where a pretty lass falls in love with a nobleman, and in act 2, a moonlit glade inhabited by ethereal spirits.

Or, as Houston Ballet's artistic associate Maina Gielgud says, "Romance, drama, betrayal are all there, and are ageless." Her version for Houston Ballet springs to life in June.

Ms. Gielgud is intimately familiar with the ballet, having danced the role of Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, "at least 200 times," beginning when she was 16. "I had my nose fixed later, because I was tired of always doing the bitchy roles, and thought if I had a slightly smaller one, I might get to dance the romantic ones I dreamed of! It worked, and I first danced Giselle when I was 24 or 25 on an island off Cannes with Rosella Hightower, then with London Festival Ballet, and perhaps 30 times, guesting with various other companies." Since then, she devised her own production of the ballet for The Australian Ballet with designs by Peter Farmer, later staging it for Boston Ballet and Ballet du Rhin, with new designs by Jean-Marc Puissant.

She attributes the ballet's long-enduring popularity to the fact that it is "exceptionally well constructed," and very demanding dramatically. And not to leave out, it embraces the emotional extremes of ecstasy and tragedy.

The story unfolds quickly: Count Albrecht woos the pretty village girl Giselle, representing himself as simply a neighboring villager. She is shy at first, but her joy grows as it is clear he loves her. The joy does not last long, however. His real identity is unmasked when Albrecht's fiancée arrives with a hunting party, and his jealous rival Hilarion discovers Albrecht's revealing sword. When Bathilde returns to claim Albrecht, the shock unhinges Giselle. She goes mad, grabs Albrecht's sword and attempts to kill herself.

The second act takes place by a forest lake, where at midnight Wilis- ghosts of young women who have been jilted and died before their wedding day - take revenge on any man who appears in the forest. Led by the implacable Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, they force men to dance until they die. Hilarion comes to visit Giselle's grave, and is soon dispatched. The Wilis turn their vengeance on Albrecht, now besides himself with remorse - and Giselle - a new initiate - intervenes. Her love is stronger than the power of the Wilis, and by dancing with and for him, she manages to keep him alive until dawn.

The role of Giselle is the ultimate test for a classical ballerina, who dances with rapturous joy, goes mad, and returns in death as a lighter-than-air Wili.

"Every dancer is dying to do Giselle," says Mireille Hassenboehler, who, along with Barbara Bears, has been cast for the June performance.

She has only danced it once, in June 2001 in a trial by fire experience. Ms. Bears was scheduled to dance Giselle opening night, but a family emergency took her out of the city. "I had 24 hours notice," Ms. Hassenboehler said. Her partner was Carlos Acosta. "He was a dream. I was numb after the performance.

"It takes a good deal of coaching, and now I will have time to develop. The difficulty is to be a young girl in love in the first act, and in the second to be otherworldly, and lighter-than-air."

Ms. Bears gets another shot, too. "It's the one ballet you dream to do. Maina will open new doors for us. I like it that I can slip inside someone else every night."

Initially, Gautier's inspiration came from two sources: Heinrich Heine's poem about Wilis, and Victor Hugo's poem that tells of a young woman who, passionately fond of dancing, catches a fatal chill after she leaves the ballroom. Fortunately, he realized a plot was needed, and collaborated with dramatist Vernoy de Saint-Georges. Together, they sketched out the scenario in three days. It took not much longer for Adolphe Adams to write the score. Paris Opera ballet master Jean Coralli was credited as the choreographer, but Jules Perrot, who was Grisi's teacher and lover, also had a hand.

It was an immediate success, performed at Paris Opera on June 28, 1841, and launched Grisi into international fame.

One week after the performance, Gautier wrote to the famous German poet, Heinrich Heine:

"My dear Heinrich Heine, when reviewing, a few weeks ago, your fine book, De L'Allemagne, I came across a charming passage… where you speak of elves in white dresses whose hems are always damp, of nixes who display their little satin feet on the ceiling of the nuptial chamber; of snow-colored Wilis who waltz pitilessly, and of all those delicious apparitions you have encountered in the Harz Mountains on the bank of the Ilse, in a mist softened by German moonlight; and I involuntarily said to myself: 'Wouldn't this make a pretty ballet?'

In the moment of enthusiasm, I even took a fine large sheet of white paper, and headed it in superb capitals: Les Wilis, a ballet. Then I laughed and threw the sheet aside without giving it another thought, saying to myself that it was impossible to translate that misty and nocturnal poetry into terms of the theater… Three days later, the ballet Giselle was accepted…."

The ballet rapidly was seen around the world, produced in London, St. Petersburg and Vienna in 1842 and in Berlin and Milan in 1843. The ballet underwent revisions along the way, with Marius Petipa's staging in St. Petersburg in 1884 the version that served as the basis for most productions ever since.

"The more I stage it, the more I learn," Ms. Gielgud says. "I particularly enjoy helping the different casts find their individual characters - for instance Albrecht. There are such interesting choices to make - he can be a cad or just someone who has no idea what love is until he meets "her." I've even changed the ending of the first act according to who dances the role."

Although the ballet was created 159 years ago for a very different audience - a bourgeoisie restive for novelty and fantasy in a period of relative calm - it still resonates with audiences today. "It is totally believable only when it is projected truthfully and with conviction," Ms. Gielgud says.

Margaret Putnam lives in Richardson, Texas, and writes about dance for The Dallas Morning News.

Recommended Reading: