Giselle, The Romantic Ballet: Romanticism in Physical Storytelling

The nineteenth century Romantic period encouraged man’s cultivation of creation, the self, individuality, exploration, and sexuality. All of these derivatives of self-actualization provided the impetus to find the human potential, to focus on emotion, and create a society based on intuition. Before this era, the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century focused the rational element in literature. Many writers, like Jonathan Swift in his Gulliver’s Travels, stated the need for the liberal arts to encourage greater thinking, and they expressed the importance of  devotion. During the Romantic period, the pendulum swung from the societal to the identities of the individual. Much poetry, architecture, painting, and theater, including dance, was established making the idea of individuality predominant in everyday life, as well as art. Unfortunately, dance in the nineteenth century was not a noted influence on the Romantic period. The ballet Giselle shows the harmonious incorporation of Romanticism and ballet.

imgresThis has to do with the differences in the nineteenth century, later called Romantic elements. The individual and his choices provide man an identity, expressing unique feelings and attitudes. Imagination, a freedom from rules, intuition, abnormal psychology, the subconscious, and freedom are among other qualities of the era.

Giselle is the Hamlet in Romantic ballet, and most people probably couldn’t disagree. The story of the ballet starts outside a hostel in the Austrian mountains in the 1920s, where Giselle and her mother work. Duke Albert/Count Albrecht, depending on the place of performance, arrives disguised as a commoner to vow his love to Giselle. A fight occurs between Albrecht and Hilarion, a hunter also in love with Giselle, because Hilarion is jealous seeing them together. Giselle’s mother is worried because her daughter has a week heart.  This is a concern because the legend of the  virgin-brides who die from broken hearts before their wedding nights (Wilis) haunt the forests feasting on young men by forcing them to dance until they die.  What if this man breaks her heart, the stress from heartbreak causes her to have a heart attack and die, and then she becomes one of these things?!  Outrageous?  Yes!  Romantic?  Oh, Yes!

Soon the Duke of Courland and his daughter, Bathilde, Albrecht’s fiancée, show up. Giselle and Albrecht’s fiancée meet and tell about their love and how they are so very happy to both be betrothed. Unfortunately, the two don’t know they are betrothed to the same person. Giselle finds out and (instead of having a heart attack from the stress of heartbreak) kills herself with a knife after going mad, thus dead from a broken heart.

In Act II, Hilarion and Giselle’s mother are visiting her grave in a deep forest on a high cliff. When night comes, Myrtha, the queen of the wilis, shows up, along with the rest of the broken-hearted fairies and Giselle. Albrecht then shows up and Giselle comforts him.  Meanwhile, Hilarion is caught  but dies falling off the cliff’s edge trying to escape. Albrecht is under the same circumstance, but Giselle’s love for him protects him from the wrath of the wilis and Myrtha until dawn forces them back into their graves, giving Albrecht a final goodbye.

Romantic qualities  like mystery, magic, and stupendous imagination are created with the  use of smoke machines, wires, trapdoors, waterfalls, etc. The clothes became racier, the bodies smaller, more skin showed, and the technique got longer; the legs went higher, the turnout was harder, and the steps became more graceful.

In eighteenth century ballet, steps were mostly performed only if they freed the dancer or explained a story more accurately; the rest of the vocabulary was rightfully dismissed as a waste of intellect.  The personified romantic elements used in Giselle are the abnormal psychology, rebellious spirit, freedom from formalism, and the noble savage, as well as dualism, deception, and destiny. Abnormal psychology is represented in the insanity and fear that Giselle performs in her mad scene. The rebellious spirit lies both in Albrecht and Giselle because they are from different castes, pursuing each other. The need for freedom to do this is a romantic element.

The use of the wilis refers to the noble savage; the wilis are like zombies, fairies, and ghosts all crammed into one tutu.  They are evil, vengeful creatures, that rise from the dead, torture men, and retreat into their graves when the sun dawns. 

Cynically, the ballet does not give any form of contentment, but melancholy from romanticism, much like Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry does. Most interpretations of Giselle look at Albrecht as being seductive and sinister, focusing on the romantic idea of him having abnormal psychology, where as Theophile Gautier (originator) wanted Albrecht to be an object of sympathy because he truly loved Giselle; he simply couldn’t have her due to his betrothal to Bathilde. This element is the need for freedom and the individual’s choices.

The Romantic Period was centered around the celebration of the self, where as the Victorian period put women on an untouchable pedestal. Giselle creates the fine line between using the sylph (a wilis) as a tool for Romanticism and being an untouchable Victorian icon.

In Act I, Giselle is a soulful, joyous character blinded by the bliss of love and life. In Act II, Giselle is the epitome of the unattainable perfection of woman. The Romantic quality is that Albrecht makes the individual choice to pursue the unattainable, even after death. A Wilis is not a romantic characteristic, but it is only a tool to show the other characters and settings as being romantic or making romantic choices.

In the end, Giselle leaves the audience with a few saddening thoughts: Albrecht is doomed to loose Giselle forever in a longing goodbye where she throws lilies, the flower of death, back to him. This probably represents her physical death, the death of their spiritual relationship, his death if he so returns, and the need for him to allow his love for her to die.

Unfortunately, dance in the nineteenth century was not a noted influence on the Romantic period. The ballet Giselle shows the harmonious incorporation of Romanticism and ballet. It is truly a tragedy that complete love devoid of sexual gratification does not exist outside of the romantic ballet.  And the storytelling is lost, from using only the necessary movements to tell a story from the heart to using enough vocabulary and athleticism to awe audiences’ optical desires.



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