Becoming a ghost

05 May 2015 | By Annie Carroll

Annie Carroll, a former dancer with The Australian Ballet, tells us what it’s like to dance as a member of the wilis, Giselle’s eerie back-from-the-dead brides.

I was raised in a house heaving with ballet films, books, and photographs, so Giselle was around me from a very young age. Memories of a video starring the delicate Carla Fraccifaded-blue skirt churning in circles as she paced through the Act I “mad scene” – are distilled in my mind. Even more so are the memories of rows of wilis, images printed in my mother’s heavy hard-back books. They appeared cold and unrelenting, dressed like brides but with no trace of love on their faces. Their heads were adorned with delicate white floral wreaths, a jarring contrast with the unforgiving black eyes beneath. They begged the question: who were these ghostly women?

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photography Jeff Busby

As I matured, I could see echoes of the wilis in many of the great classical ballets. The are delicate like the sylphs of Les Sylphide, united like the swans in Swan Lake, moving in great unison like the shades of La Bayadère. The unbroken thread throughout my education was the impact of these women en masse, made all the more hypnotic by their cloud of soft white tutus. Costumed in diaphanous long white tulle skirts, the wilis are arguably the defining symbol of the ballet blanc. Although technically a term of the Romantic Era, the “white act” is a feature of many of the great classical ballets, and often functions as a yardstick for a company’s corps de ballet.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photography Jeff Busby

As a young member of The Australian Ballet, freshly introduced to the fold, the challenge of performing as a wili was a delight. There were of course the rewarding technical demands: keeping my arabesque at a perfect 90-degree angle as we “shunted” across the stage. A burning supporting leg reminding me it was definitely the sixth show of the week. Reaching perfect stillness alongside my neighbouring wilis. What else might you expect from this sort of intensely uniform classical choreography? But there is a subtle difference in this particular ballet blanc that is only revealed as the pressures of the physical requirements slip away. Unlike the shades of La Bayadère or the swans of Swan Lake, the wilis of Giselle are not just creatures or mere reflections, they are women. Supernatural perhaps, but their broken hearts mean they are no less real.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photography Jeff Busby

With their arms cradled in soft curves, the wilis’ wrists gently overlap as though supporting the memory of a child that was never born – a reminder of the men who have betrayed them. Having had the chance to delve deeper into the movement of the wilis, both in Maina Gielgud’s production with The Australian Ballet and as a student in Sir Peter Wright’s production with The Royal Ballet, these sorts of beautiful nuances were gradually revealed to me, enabling me to experience a kind of catharsis on stage that can be hard to find in corps de ballet work. I’d suddenly found myself beginning to answer my question – who are these ghostly women? Fearsome, malicious, and powerful, they are almost the antithesis of ballet’s archetypical “woman in white” stereotype, the fragile waif in need of saving.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photography Lynette Wills

Embodying the role of a character whose actions are impossibly vindictive might seem unrewarding to most. But for me, who spent all those hours gazing at the faces of wilis past in my mother’s hard-back books, it was a release, a kind of deliverance into womanhood. I could always sense the power that we – all 24 of our ghostly tutus en masse – were having on the audience, and maybe even on each other – united as we were in the collective fruition of all our childhood visions of those women in white.

See the wilis in all their ghostly glory when Giselle visits Canberra, Brisbane (free outdoor performance, 29 May) and Adelaide in 2015. Tickets for Canberra and Adelaide