In the entire history of ballet, I know of nothing more perfect, more beautiful or greater than Giselle”, wrote Serge Lifar with alacrity. It is true that the popularity of Giselle has never wavered, and neither has its place among the most important creations in the history of ballet, and indeed dance in general. For whilst remaining the incarnation of a certain era, Giselle is timeless; the epitome of romantic ballet, modern re-readings of it have often sought only to render it yet more romantic.
If Giselle is rightly considered one of the summits of romantic dance, it is not only because this ballet, created around 1840 by Théophile Gautier and Jules-Henry Vernoy de Saint-Georges, is a product of its time; it is also because the many performances of it that have been given right up to our own time have revisited, accentuated and streamlined some of the elements that constitute its romanticism.
The story of Giselle was entirely inspired by German romanticism: the idea for it came to Gautier in response to a passage from the manifesto Über Deutschland (On Germany) by Heinrich Heine on the subject of Vile, creatures from German and Slavonic folklore, the ghosts of young fiancées dead before their nuptials and haunting the woods to carry off imprudent wanderers with them into the afterlife. The ballet’s plot, situated in a medieval, bucolic Germany, begins in the first act with a scene featuring folk dances whose strong “local colour” is reminiscent of certain works by Victor Hugo or Musset; and the second act, in which the Vile appear is dominated by a dreamlike, fantasmagorial atmosphere, heightened in the first production of the ballet by the decors of Charles Ciceri, “a great specialist of lighting effects, sunrises, moonlight and evocations from beyond the grave”, wrote Serge Lifar.
After a resoundingly successful period, in France and elsewhere, that continued up until the 1860s, Giselle seems to have gone out of fashion and disappeared from the bill. But the ballet was later to enjoy a renaissance in Russia, at the Mariinski Theatre in Saint Petersburg where, in 1884, 1887 and 1899, the French ballet master, Marius Petipa, presented new version of Giselle. In the course of these performances, the original libretto and the choreography were modified, notably, those elements judged to be purely decorative and not necessary to the drama were cut out.
It was in this new mould that, in 1910 and 1924, Giselle was re-exported back to France by the Russians, with memorable new productions. Deliberately modernised, the ballet radicalised certain elements that had been present initially and, as a result, it could be considered as even more romantic than the original. In Act II, for example, all the elements of daily reality, whose appearance contrasted with the ghostly presence of the Vile, were cut: the halt of the hunters at the beginning of the tableau, the confrontation between the peasants and the Vile that follows, and the arrival of Princess Bathilde at Albrecht’s side at the end (the curtain now falls on a despairing and solitary Prince). Thus the Act now belongs entirely to the Vile, nothing more disturbs the dreamlike and sepulchral atmosphere created by their presence on stage. In Act I, the “Madness Scene”, in which Giselle discovers that her love for Albrecht is impossible, was also modified: less danced, more mimed, it offered a vision of madness that was both more realistic and more dramatic.
As Lifar said, these changes contributed to a more “poetic” conception of ballet, in keeping, in his opinion, with what Gautier had wanted (Gautier had had to make a few concessions to his co-librettist Vernoy de Saint-Georges, a confirmed author of ballets orientated more towards entertainment and bourgeois drama) and closer to the spirit of German romanticism that had inspired him in the first place.
The interpreters of the role of Giselle also changed, and with them, the way the role was conceived. After Carlotta Grisi, the first Giselle, a blue-eyed blond whose appeal as a young peasant lay in her freshness and vivacity, the role was reinvented by the great Russian ballerinas who then appropriated it: Anna Pavlova, Olga Spessivtseva, mysterious brunettes who embodied a more tragic, ethereal Giselle, perfect when they mimed her madness or took on the aspect of ghosts clad in the winding sheets of the Vile.
Yesterday and today, Giselle embodies the apotheosis of Romantic ballet; but it is clear that, from one period to another, one is not speaking of entirely the same romanticism. The ballet that was performed in 1841 was of a prosaic, bucolic romanticism, still close to light entertainment, relying to a large extent on effects of local colour. In the 20th century, it became more poetic, more absolute, with a romanticism dominated by themes of dreaming and death that, as a result, is timeless.