Monday, July 02, 2012


On Friday evening I attended a performance by English Youth Ballet of Giselle at the Theatre Royale, Norwich. With a cast of over 100 young people the EYB is the only company which travels regionally throughout the United Kingdom to stage 8 full scale ballets annually. The company is augmented by 6 professional dancers in principal roles.

Artistic director Janet Lewis’s  up-dated version of Giselle  is set in early 1900's England, the class division between aristocracy and peasant emphasized by an 'upstairs-downstairs' theme which is highlighted in costume. Other notable differences in the EYB's inspired interpretation include the principal character of Giselle having a paternal ward instead of a maternal widow, the addition of other music by Adolphe Adam and quite naturally given the company’s youth, the omission of a Bacchanalian celebration. 

In the Janet Lewis and EYB production of the ballet Giselle the opportunity to showcase all the members of its company occurs, including its very youngest members.  It can be no easy logistical exercise to orchestrate in rehearsal and performance over 100 dancers ranging from the tender age of 8 to 18. The considerable amount of hard work and dedication needed for success shone through on the night of the performance; testimony to the fact that historically the English, one of the great ballet-loving nations of the world, have produced world-class dancers, choreographers and knowledgeable, appreciative audiences throughout the 20th century to the present-day.

First performed at the Paris Opera house in 1841 and originally set in a Rhineland village, Act one of Giselle celebrates the temporal world of human life, its joys and passions, the harvest of the fruits of the earth with an emphasis upon human mortality. In complete contrast Act  two of Giselle is set at night, in the supernatural and eternal world of the Wili's, vengeful female spirits who, jilted in love before their wedding-day have died heart-broken at their own hands. In the  second act of  EYB’s Giselle the corps de ballet was most spectacular in the co-ordination and symmetry of  two dozen ballerina’s dancing collectively as ethereal Wili’s.  In Act  two  Giselle defies the harsh rule of Myrtha, Queen of the underworld, that her lover Albrecht must suffer the fate of dancing himself to death (a curious anticipation of the climax of the first modern ballet of the 20th century, Stravinsky's  Le Sacre du Printemps).

With its  themes of  madness and suicide, the supernatural world and the power and triumph  of  love beyond the grave,  Giselle is the quintessential Romantic ballet. It’s a ballet which is notable on several accounts. Firstly for being a ballet for which music was written especially for it, the composer Adolphe Adam's score is full of memorable and danceable melodies, its also the first ballet score to use a leitmotif, that is, a recurrent  musical theme.

Secondly, as in Swan Lake, the principal role in Giselle makes considerable demands upon the prima ballerina who must be able to dance two quite different characters. In Giselle the prima ballerina dances the part of an innocent country girl who suffers heart-break, followed by madness and suicide. In Act 2 she must dance as an ethereal, other-worldly, spirit-creature who is determined to defy the  harsh rule of  Myrtha, Queen of the underworld. The part of  Giselle and of Queen Myrtha were excellently performed in the EYB production.

The role of Giselle was first danced by Carlotta Grisi at the tender age of 22; she was also the lover at the time of Jules Perrot, the first choreographer of Giselle. The ballet was first dreamt-up by the literary critic Theophilus Gautier from his reading a poem by the German poet Heinrich Heine.  In 1841 Gautier wrote to the German poet-

'My dear Heinrich Heine; when reviewing your fine book Uber Deutschland a few weeks ago, I came across a charming passage....where you speak of elves in white dresses, whose hems are always damp; of nixies who display their little satin feet on the ceiling of the nuptial chamber; of snow-coloured Wilis who waltz pitilessly and of those delicious apparitions you have encountered in the Harz mountains and on the banks of the Ilse, in a mist softened by German moonlight; and I involuntarily said to myself: 'wouldn't this make a pretty ballet'.  

Carlotta Grisi in the role of Giselle

Wiki-Link   Giselle

1 comment:

teegee said...

As Edith Sitwell said, "Grisi, the ondine" in a list suggestively characterized, "wear plaided Victora and thin Clementine", in the middle of Waltz in Facade, I knew that before I ever saw the ballet (no tapes or dvd's or TV for ballet then, and our own company hadn't done Giselle.
The story of Giselle may be negligible, but its own history is not!