Many story ballets have stories we all know, but Giselle is another story
By Cindy Case
At the end of this month, San Diego Ballet is sampling some of ballet’s most classic works in our show Romance: En Pointe. Many of these ballets have stories which are self-explanatory: just about everyone read Romeo and Juliet in freshman-year English, and while the specifics of the ballet Don Quixote are just a small part of the novel, we all know of Cervantes’ famous knight tilting at windmills.
Giselle, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. SDB is presenting its famous second act this month, but there’s a great deal of meaning behind the diaphanous tulle skirts and the deathly-quiet movements of the dancers. For those of us peasants who have never seen Giselle before, here’s a quick guide:
When the second act of the ballet begins, Giselle (peasant, lover of dancing, tragically broken-hearted) has already had the worst—and last—day of her life. Thanks to a snitch named Hilarion, she found out that the peasant boy she was in love with is actually a duke who is promised to another. The shock of this led her to manically dance herself to death, her weak heart giving out just as her mother warned her. As the curtain opens, the guilt-stricken Hilarion is constructing a cross to mark Giselle’s grave. Filmy white shapes flash on the edges of his vision, and strange subterranean sounds startle him from his work. It gives him the willies.
This is quite literal: the malevolent she-spirits of the ballet are called wilis. Hilarion flees just in time. Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, emerges from her grave to prepare this woodland clearing for the unholy nighttime activities of her wilis. Each of them died as Giselle did, scorned and heartbroken, and they now haunt the local woods. Should any man discover them in the midst of their furious, beautiful dancing, he cannot help but dance himself to death. Myrtha is without mercy, and the only thing which can stop the wilis’ macabre dance is the breaking of dawn. Should sunlight strike them, they would dissolve into the morning mist.
With all of her wilis around her, Myrtha calls Giselle from her grave. Giselle creeps out into the night, still covered in her shroud. Even in her newly ephemeral form, Giselle is as gentle and lovely as she was in life. The wilis, hearing the sounds of living men in the woods, fly further into the forest. Giselle, however, lingers: she has just spotted Albrecht, the young man who broke her heart.
Like Hilarion, Albrecht is wracked with guilt. Being a nobleman, he has never had much cause to think of the consequences of his actions. Now, however, the evidence is there in Giselle’s name on the grave marker. He lays flowers at Giselle’s grave, and like Hilarion he glimpses something ghostly just out of his view. Thinking of Giselle, he has the courage to turn and look. The two of them reunite, sweetly and sadly. Just when Albrecht thinks that he is able to hold Giselle in his arms, her insubstantial form slips away to another part of the forest.
Meanwhile, Myrtha and her wilis have found a man to kill—Hilarion! He runs wildly back and forth through the forest, crashing through the undergrowth, but every which way he turns he finds another group of wilis skimming the ground toward him. Finally, their queen enters the clearing.
“You have done hurt, as all of us have been hurt,” Myrtha says to Hilarion, “We will take our revenge upon you now.” She commands him, with all the wilis surrounding them, to dance until his own death. Hilarion dances, as madly as Giselle did when her heart was breaking, all the while begging Myrtha for forgiveness. She is stony, disinterested, and the wilis keep compelling him to dance. When Hilarion can resist no longer, she turns him over to her two most loyal wilis. They throw him into a lake to drown.
It is the that Albrecht stumbles upon Myrtha and the wilis in his search for Giselle. He has glimpsed enough of what they have done to Hilarion to know what is about to happen, and he begs the queen to show forgiveness.
Myrtha does not relent, not even when Giselle comes flying in after Albrecht to beg for his life. Myrtha’s role as queen is to protect in death the girls who were wronged in life, and there is no getting out of this for Albrecht. Myrtha commands Giselle to dance, knowing that Albrecht will not be able to resist her. The two dance much as they did when they were alone, but infinitely more sweetly and sadly. The more that they dance, the more that Albrecht grows tired. He and Giselle go to Myrtha and to all of the wilis to beg, but the answer is always no.
Eventually, the wilis grow restless and Myrtha tires of her cruel game. Albrecht falls, not yet dead. Giselle entreats Myrtha a final time to show mercy, saying, “Let forgiveness win but once over revenge.”
“No,” Myrtha says. She commands Albrecht to his feet, and he dances a final time. At last he falls, certain that he deserves his fate for deceiving Giselle. The wilis prepare to finish him off.
Before they can, Myrtha pricks up her ears. She has just heard the first church bells chiming from the nearby village, the sound distorted by the mist in the forests. It is a sign of morning coming. All around her, the wilis shield their ethereal faces from the subtle rays of light just shooting out between the trees. The forest glade clears as the wilis retreat back into their graves.
Only Giselle remains, chancing the daylight for a few more moments with Albrecht. Slowly, painfully, Albrecht lets Giselle’s insubstantial hands slip out of his grasp. As the dawn lights the tips of the trees, birds making their first sleepy trills of the day, Albrecht falls to his knees at Giselle’s grave.