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“Giselle” remains one of the most wanted roles for any modern ballerina. The part requires incredible talent to perform; the choreography challenges even the most gifted dancers. The Oregon Ballet Theatre will put on this popular play using sets and costumes from the illustrious American Ballet Theatre.
Originally performed in 1841 at the Paris Opera Ballet, the story was inspired by German folktales. Spirit maidens, called “Wilis,” danced men to death when they entered the forest, but the Wilis named Giselle had a weakness: She fell in love with a trespasser of the forest, Albrecht.
The Wilis are the souls of young women that died before their wedding day. Giselle was one of these women, but she saves her love by giving him strength to make it until dawn, when he is released from the spell. The basic outline of the story is this: Giselle, a peasant, is in love with her neighbor Loys, unaware that he is Count Albrecht, who is engaged to Bathilde. Local forester Hilarion is in love with Giselle, but she ignores him. He finds out Loys’ real identity and tells Giselle. In shock, she attempts suicide and dies.
Giselle becomes a Wilis, led by Queen Myrtha, and Albrecht takes flowers to Giselle’s grave. He dances all night, and Giselle helps him to dance until daybreak to escape the spell of the Wilis’.
According to Richard Finkelstein’s timeline and notes on the famous ballet, the Wilis of “Giselle” were inspired by the writings of German poet Heinrich Heine. But perhaps even more interesting than the story performed in the ballet is what went on behind the scenes more than 160 years ago.
Choreographer Jean Coralli, born in 1779, became the ballet master at The Paris Opera. He choreographed for everyone but ballerina Carlotta Grisi. On June 18, 1841, Grisi played the very first Giselle on her 22nd birthday. She was regarded as one of the four greatest ballerinas of her time, having performed on stage in the corps de ballet at La Scala in Milan at age 10. She was discovered and subsequently trained by Jules Perrot.
Perrot became Grisi’s choreographer. Starting out as just the son of a stage carpenter, he became the most talented male dancer until Vaslav Nijinksy came along in the early 1900s. Perrot was working in the ballet theatre by the time he was 12, training with August Vestris in dancing, as well as learning acrobatics. He met Grisi while traveling through Italy when she was only 17. Rumor has it that they became lovers, and then got married. Grisi insisted that Perrot do her choreography, and he later danced the part of Albrecht. Even though he alone worked with the first Giselle, Coralli received all the choreography credit.
Theophile Gautier, author of the ballet, played the first Libretto. An interesting tidbit is that Gautier was in love with Grisi, but ended up marrying her sister instead.
Adolphe Adam, a Frenchman, composed the music for “Giselle.” Countless famous ballerinas such as Anna Pavlova, Margot Fonteyn and Ghislaine Thesmar have performed the most famous of all Romantic-era ballets, “Giselle.” Even those not well versed in ballet history should recognize the name Mikhail Baryschnikov, a male dancer who played Albrecht.
In 1865, “Giselle” stopped being performed in Paris. The ballet was almost lost and only continued when Russian dancers performed it, thereby saving it from extinction. For more information on the ballet’s history, go to The American Ballet Theatre’s Web site, www.obt.org. Either that, or just go see this beautifully sad ballet this weekend.