Giselle: Classics in the Modern World


“I don’t particularly think of a personality trait when I dance Albrecht, I just try to make him a real person. If he had a really happy life he wouldn’t be in the village pretending to be a peasant so it means he is someone who is searching for something, and he found that something in Giselle. I have nothing against non-classical versions of Giselle, I just count myself very fortunate to dance such a wonderful, pure classical version here at the Mariinsky! Few productions can come close to it!”

Xander Parish, the principal of Mariinsky ballet

Giselle is a world-famous masterwork of classical ballet. Each person, whether a dancer or a spectator, can highlight the special features of this ballet and has an individual point of view the different versions of the legendary Giselle.

It was first performed by the Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris, France in 1841, with Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi as Giselle. The music by Adolphe Adam and the choreography created by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot had great success that time, but the traditional choreography that has been passed down to the present day comes mainly from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg.

There is a curious fact about Giselle ballet in the biography of Vaslav Nijinsky, the ballet genius of the beginning of XX century. In 1911 Nijinsky danced the role of Albrecht at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg for the Imperial Ballet, it was attended by Empress Dowager Maria Feodorovna. Albrecht's costume designed by Alexandre Benois and used in Paris before, caused a scandal because Nijinsky danced only in tights without the traditional for that time trousers. He refused to apologize and was dismissed from the Imperial Ballet.

This ballet was very important for the Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It was staged in 1911 in London, with Tamara Karsavina and Nijinsky in the main roles. Anna Pavlova danced Giselle with her own company in 1913. Alicia Markova danced the role of Giselle with the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, and legendary Margot Fonteyn took the role after Markova left the company in 1937.

The classical Giselle is still one of the main ballets in the repertoire of the best ballet companies in the world. It's an iconic piece of art which was performed by such ballerinas and dancers of the past as Yvette Chauviré, Natalia Makarova, Maya Plisetskaya, Alicia Alonso, Rudolf Nureyev, Erik Bruhn, Cyril Atanasoff etc. Last years we can admire the real ballet stars as Isabelle Guérin and Laurent Hilaire, Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle, Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov, Isabelle Ciaravola and Mathieu Ganio and other gorgeous duos, who turn this classical ballet into a masterpiece.

In a departure from the traditional Giselle there are very interesting versions including the Giselle by Mats Ek (1982), Creole Giselle by Frederic Franklin (1984), and the newest contemporary version of Giselle by Akram Khan (2016).

The ballet by Mats Ek was made for his wife and muse Ana Laguna. He reworked the original plot, made it more theatrical. His Giselle is a village girl abused by a cynical seducer from the city and the post-mortem universe is transformed into a psychiatric asylum. This version highlights the social problematic and shows very technically difficult choreography typical for Mats Ek during all his career in its early form.

Frederic Franklin made his Creole Giselle for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. This adaptation set the ballet among the Creoles and African Americans in the 1840s Louisiana, but it is very similar to the original, except for a few changes in the storyline and variations in the choreography. This Giselle is dedicated to the problem of status in the African American society was measured by how far removed one’s family was from slavery.

Akram Khan's Giselle is unusual, very physical and with an atmosphere of peculiar “danse macabre”, where Giselle is one of a community of migrant factory workers and the first thing we can see the characters in shadow push against a large wall. Characterised as “gothic” and “ominous”, Khan's Giselle made a sensation in the ballet world by the original choreography and performances by English National Ballet. This Giselle is dystopian, hopeless and hypnotizing. In 2019 the ballet by Akram Khan has been broadcast on TV in Germany, Portugal, Japan, Sweden and the UK, also English National Ballet has had cinema screenings in Spain, Russia, France, the UK, South Africa, Japan, Ukraine, Belarus, Israel etc.

Personally, I believe Giselle will still be one of the most inspiring ballets for choreographers and audiences, and there will be many new versions of it in the future, but the classical one is going to stay relevant in the modern world.

The special thanks to:

Xander Parish, the principal dancer of Mariinsky ballet — for the brief opening remarks

English National Ballet — for the information about Akram Khan's Giselle.

Author: Julia Sumzina

Instagram: @js_artsreview

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