“People go to see Giselle and to see new ballerinas dance it for the same reason we go to see new interpretations of Hamlet: The work is such a good one that we always discover something in it we hadn’t seen before … we learn something new.” –George Balanchine and Francis Mason
Giselle tops most ballet companies’ wish lists. One of the most significant works of the Romantic era, the ballet has challenged dancers and directors since its 1841 debut in Paris. It is a staple for most of the world’s major companies, and the coveted title role has become a standard by which female principal dancers are measured.
Since the work transitions from a vibrant peasant village in Act I to an eerie forest filled with vengeful spirits in Act II, performers must capture Giselle’s psychological journey from innocent girl to betrayed lover and, eventually, to a distillation of pure love and forgiveness—quite a stretch.
Although there is no documented “original version,” the basic story is the same in all productions, revolving around a naïve peasant girl with a weak heart who loves to dance. Although she has a respectable suitor (Hilarion), she falls for a nobleman in disguise (Albrecht) who subsequently betrays her. Giselle’s despair leads to madness and her death.
A pretty basic story—but this one has a hitch. In this village neighborhood, girls who die after their boyfriends jilt them are destined to spend eternity in the forest in some weird sort of half-life. They become Wilis, bitter and ruthless spirits who exist only to sentence men to death. Led by Myrtha, their queen, they pretty much succeed at their appointed task.
Now we skip to Act II and the aforementioned creepy forest. First up are Myrtha and the Wilis. They are gathered to initiate the new pledge—Giselle. First, they do away with Hilarion, mostly because the poor chump is visiting Giselle’s grave and is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then they go after Albrecht, the highlight of Giselle’s initiation ritual. Giselle, being a bad pledge, intercedes on his behalf, but Myrtha is having none of it. Giselle is pretty tricky, though, and keeps him dancing until the Wilis’ power disappears at dawn.
The end is problematic. In almost all instances, Albrecht lives, albeit somewhat damaged for life. However, Giselle’s fate is often unclear. Does she go join the vampiric sorority sisters, or does her act of forgiveness release her from the half-life and allow her to die? Most productions leave it vague, subject to dancer and audience interpretation.
In fact, because the story is so basic, the dancers’ interpretive potential is vast. These are roles dancers work entire careers for, and they have differing opinions as to their characters’ motivations. For this production, Nevada Ballet Theatre has chosen three casts for Albrecht and Giselle and two for Myrtha and Hilarion.
Zeb Nole, for example, sees Albrecht as something of a player. “He is heading for a preordained marriage,” Nole says, “and is taking this one last break. Because he can, he manipulates Giselle and takes advantage of her. He deserves what he gets.”
Another Albrecht, Jared Hunt, has a more romantic view. “I think he gets himself into a mess he hadn’t foreseen,” Hunt says. “He didn’t expect to fall in love with Giselle. When he does, he lies to himself, as well as to her. What makes the role challenging,” he explains, “is that you are playing a character who is playing a character who deceives himself.”
Both agree, though, that Albrecht thoroughly regrets his actions, even if he isn’t sincere to start. “It is a personal tragedy for him as he ends up empty and alone,” Hunt concludes.
Modern women sometimes have a problem with Giselle. To our current sensibilities, she seems beyond simple—almost like the village idiot. “Not so,” says Rebecca Brimhall, one of NBT’s Giselles. “She is naïve and very young, only 14 or 15. This is her first love, and she believes in him.”
Myrtha, the queen of the Wilis, is also a much-coveted role. Although little explanation is given in the libretto, Cathy Colbert sees Myrtha as the original Giselle. “She was the first to be betrayed,” Colbert says. “Over time, other girls join her, and she becomes their leader, their protector.”
So how does it end? Brimhall feels that, although Giselle does die, she is released from being a Wili. Colbert differs: “She can forgive him all she wants, but at the end, she’s one of us.”