Giselle Primer
by Karen Kain 
November 4, 2019


I saw Giselle for the first time when I was eight years old and was absolutely transported by the music, the beautiful costumes and the atmosphere of drama and romance. Giselle still has that effect on me today, as it has on generations of audiences over its nearly 180-year history.

Giselle Trailer

Giselle is one of the oldest existing ballets in the classical repertoire. It premiered at the Paris Opera in 1841 with the Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi as Giselle, a role that required her to be both actress and technician. Part of what makes Giselle so challenging to dance is the enormous range of her experience, starting with innocent love and moving through madness, death and forgiveness. Fortunately, this is also what makes the role so appealing, as I discovered for myself when I first performed Giselle opposite Frank Augustyn in 1973.
But Giselle is not only a ballet for the Principals, it also features stunning work from the Corps de Ballet, to the extent that the Corps is almost a starring role of its own. The female Corps de Ballet appear in Act II as the Wilis, the spirits of betrayed women who have died from grief after being abandoned on their wedding night. They emerge in the moonlight at Giselle’s grave, luminous and eerie, ready to claim Giselle for themselves. Their long white costumes are exquisite, and they hold a special place in the history of the National Ballet. The late Desmond Heeley one of the great stage designers of his era – hand-painted them to resemble decaying wedding gowns.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Sir Peter Wright’s acclaimed staging of Giselle, which entered our repertoire in 1970. In it, the young peasant girl, Giselle, kills herself on realizing she has been deceived by her suitor, Albrecht, who is betrothed to someone else. Giselle is summoned by the Wilis to dance Albrecht to death, but the purity of her love is such that he is spared. Theirs is a haunting and tragic story, and true to the earliest known version of the ballet. I hope, like me, that you find much in it to move and inspire you.

Giselle is onstage November 6 –  10, 2019.


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