The longevity of Giselle is credited not only to its historical value but also to the universality of its tale— a story of love, class distinction, betrayal, remorse and forgiveness. Like Romeo and Juliet, Giselle is a story of lovers separated by the artificial barriers of society. For both dancers and audience members, the roles of Giselle and Albrecht prove a fascinating challenge, as they allow for multi-faceted psychological character development.
The role of Giselle is unique, from its costuming to the complexity of its character makeup. At the time of its creation in 1841, Giselle was one of the first ballets to introduce the female dancer in pointe shoes, a device that allowed her wider possibilities of movement. The result was that she seemed light, ethereal and otherworldly on stage. The introduction of calf-length, lightweight tulle dresses with tight bodices also allowed for greater freedom in leg movements and the appearance of softer, “romantic” arms.
The contrasting thematic concerns of Giselle also lent themselves to the Romantic fervour of the period. While many ballets dealt either with an idealized peasant life or the fantastic, Giselle incorporated both. The ballet is set in two locales, which are set off in sharp contrast. Act I takes place in the peasant village, which is contrasted with the moonlit forest glade of Act II. As well, the realism of Act I is contrasted with the fantasy elements of Act II. The first act incorporates bright and lively mime and musical leitmotifs that develop the drama. Before the end of Act I, Giselle’s mad scene begins the transition to Act II, in which the demonic world of the Wilis is represented as dark, sombre and melancholic.
The character of Giselle also goes through a transformation, from light-hearted peasant girl to crazed woman and, finally, to a ghostly vision. Giselle is a challenge for ballerinas who must combine dramatic ability and technical brilliance to bring about a convincing performance in a role that is both physically and mentally exhausting.
One of the most powerful scenes in the ballet is Giselle’s death. Does she die of madness or of a broken heart? Or does she commit suicide when she thrusts Albrecht’s sword toward her heart? Since early documentation proves inconclusive on the subject, the scene has been dealt with in various ways. The only clear fact is that Giselle is not buried in a graveyard but in the depths of a forest in unhallowed ground. Only a suicide would warrant such a burial. Choreographer Sir Peter Wright has said he believes Giselle kills herself, but in his own productions dancers have changed the scene to suit their own interpretations. In the late 1800s in Russia, during Marius Petipa’s tenure as Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatre, suicide was not accepted on the stage, so Giselle invariably was shown as dying from madness.
The role of Albrecht provides male dancers with one of ballet’s most interesting and complex characters. Far removed from the porteurs of most classical works, who simply carry the ballerina, Albrecht is a fully rounded character capable of standing on his own and holding centre stage.
There is no right or wrong way to portray Albrecht. Because Albrecht is a nobleman in disguise, it might be assumed that he wishes to be freed from his elevated social position. It is also possible that he has grown alienated from his wealth and is seeking a more spiritual, simple and authentic existence. Or maybe he is a restless dreamer who seeks a quaint diversion among the peasants.
In falling in love with Giselle is Albrecht a cad? Is he a thoughtless nobleman and idle flirt? Or is he truly in love with Giselle but simply naive about the social implications of their liaison? Whether or not he is concerned with the consequences of his actions, he is soon confronted with them.
Already engaged to be married, Albrecht is prevented by his duty to his aristocratic family from fulfilling his love for Giselle. Giselle’s madness and subsequent death not only awaken Albrecht’s moral sense, but also bring to the fore his emotions, primarily love and guilt. Through Giselle’s love and forgiveness in Act II, Albrecht gains new awareness, humility, and a sense of responsibility. He is also made aware of the gulf between reality and his ideals, and his inability to merge the two. He must fight for his life in this act, at the mercy of the powerful Wilis, who attempt with their supernatural powers to compel him to dance to his death.
At the end of the ballet, Albrecht is left on stage, a solitary figure. Dancers’ interpretations vary in these final moments, sometimes walking into the distance, away from the audience or toward it; sometimes carrying a flower, the only tangible link with Giselle, at other times, allowing the flower to fall to the ground; others end the ballet reaching out for the elusive dream or kneeling in remorse. In the original production, this scene was taken one step further, with Bathilde, Albrecht’s betrothed, returning to his side. The audience would have concluded that although he had savoured his ideal (Giselle), he was reconciled to return to reality.