Giselle – A Brief History on the Beautiful Romantic Ballet

Written by Robyn Jutsum

What better way to celebrate the month of love than with the Romantic storybook ballet, Giselle!

Originally choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli with music by Adolphe Adam, the version we are most familiar with today is actually based on a revival Marius Petipa created in St. Petersburg. It is also one of the first full-length ballets to be performed en pointe.

The ballet is a two-act ballet taking place in a small village along the Rhine (Act I) followed by a graveyard in the middle of the night (Act II).

The first Giselle was Carlotta Grisi, an Italian ballerina who rose to stardom mid-19th Century as a result of her performance in the ballet. The first performance took place in Paris at Theatre de l’Academie Royale de Musique on June 28th, 1841. Lucien Petipa performed the role of Albrecht, the main love interest of Giselle, and Adele Dumilatre danced Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Grisi would later go on to dance as Giselle again at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg.

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Kaoria Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite, Photo by Angela Sterling

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Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov, Royal Ballet

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Lisa Bolte, Mad Scene, Photo Credit: Australian Ballet

Act I

The basic premise of the ballet follows the love story between Giselle, a young woman who is afflicted with a weak heart and a love of dance, and Albrecht, a count (or other courtier depending on interpretation) in disguise as a peasant. As with any good balletic love story, there’s of course another man vying for Giselle’s affections, Hilarion, the village huntsman/gamekeeper, to no avail. 

Albrecht disguises himself as a peasant and convinces Giselle of his honest intentions, despite being betrothed to another.

A memorable scene in the first act is when Giselle picks a daisy playing the game “he loves me, he loves me not.” Her last petal lands on “He loves me not.” However, he is able to assuage her concerns and pledge his eternal love to her.

In Hilarion’s efforts to win over Giselle and in discovering Albrecht’s secret, he finds out that Albrecht is not who he says he is. This deception is revealed to the entire village with the arrival of Bathilde, Albrecht’s betrothed. She finds Giselle endearing and the two women bond, not realizing they are engaged to the same man. Hilarion, in a jealous rage, reveals Albrecht’s secret identity, causing Giselle to go into a dancing frenzy (the famous “mad scene”).

She goes mad at the betrayal and tragically collapses, having died from a broken heart.

Act II

Act II opens to reveal the grave of Giselle who is about to become a Wili. All the Wilis are the haunted spirits of women who passed on the eve of their weddings, betrayed by their loves.

Hilarion appears to mourn the loss of Giselle when Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, discovers him, calls the rest of the spirits, and they force him to dance until his death. Albrecht arrives to deliver flowers to Giselle’s grave, and a similar fate seemingly awaits him. However, Giselle, despite the betrayal, still loves him and protects him from the Wilis until Dawn. In doing so, she is also saved from becoming a Wili and is able to pass on, while Albrecht is forced to live with the consequences of his deception.

Fast Facts About Giselle

As the composer, Adolphe Adam used leitmotifs, little musical themes that coincide with different characters or moments in the plot. For example, the musical theme we hear in Act I while Giselle picks the petals of a flower returns later in the mad scene and then again in Act II. Although the music is not considered the most incredible music, it is certainly danceable, very sweet, and easy to dance to.

The original story was written by librettists, Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier. Coralli took advice from Gautier, who had suggested only the most beautiful girls dance as the Wilis.

The second act is often referred to as the “White Act” because the second act is mainly straight dance rather than driven fully by the plot.

Giselle, as a Romantic ballet, changed the landscape of how ballets would be cast and who the protagonist would be. One element of Romantic ballets is that the production centers around the women.

Another element of Romantic ballets such as Giselle is that there is not always, if ever, a truly happy ending. There was a shift from logic and reason in the creation of these works instead leaving a resounding fascination with the supernatural and otherworldly (i.e. the concept of a Wili).

The first American production of Giselle ran in Boston in 1864, and the first American to dance the role of Giselle was Mary Ann Lee, who had studied under Coralli at the Paris Opera Ballet.

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