The Australian Ballet

Everlasting Love: Giselle then and now

86 87 2021 GISELLE Akira Akiyama Emi Masamoto 1 O4 A9330 photo Kiyonori Hasegawa The Tokyo Ballet

Akira Akiyama and Emi Masamoto with artists of The Tokyo Ballet
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa/The Tokyo Ballet

As The Toyko ballet prepares to stage Giselle in Melbourne, behind ballet looks at the history and timeless appeal of the 19th century work.

In a letter to the 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine, who had recently written an account of Slavic spirits known as Wilis, the French poet Théophile Gautier, asked: “Wouldnt’ this make a pretty ballet?” Thus was born the idea for the great Romantic ballet Giselle, in which the Wilis represent the spirits of young women who have been abandoned before their wedding day. They love to dance in the woods at night, but they are dangerous, too: when they encounter a man, they force him to dance until death overtakes him.

Giselle Carlotta Grisi 1841 2 1

Lithograph of Carlotta Grisi in Giselle,1841
Artist Unknown

In the work that was born out of Gautier’s moment of inspiration, there is a force even stronger than the Wilis’ power, however, and that is love. The heroine, Giselle, is a young woman who falls in love with a nobleman in disguise, Count Albrecht. The first act depicts a whirlwind romance. But when Giselle realizes that the man she loves is actually engaged to marry someone else, she loses her mind, and dies of heartbreak. In the second act, she is inducted into the sistership of the Wilis, ghostly, seductive, and powerful. But somehow, Giselle’s love for Albrecht has remained intact. She protects him, encourages him, and ultimately saves him from his fate at the hands of the Wilis.

This idea of the redemptive power of love, combined with Adolphe Adam’s limpid, dramatic, and tightly-constructed score, has captivated audiences ever since. The ballet premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1841, with a scenario co-written by Gautier and the playwright Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. The choreography was by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. The Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi danced the part of Giselle, partnered by the French dancer Lucien Petipa.

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Akira Akiyama and Yasuomi Akimoto
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa/The Tokyo Ballet

Since then, it has been performed more or less without interruption, migrating from country to country. In 1842, it opened in London; in 1943, at La Scala in Milan. But it was in Russia, where the ballet was first performed in 1842, that Giselle really took hold, revised by subsequent choreographers and ballet masters throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Most importantly, Marius Petipa, younger brother of the first Albrecht, staged a series of revivals from 1884 onward that form the basis of the ballet we see today. Among the most famous Giselle’s have been Olga Spessivtseva, Alicia Alonso, and Alina Cojocaru. The long list of great Albrecht’s includes Australian Ballet’s own David Hallberg, who performed the lead in theaters around the world, including at The Tokyo Ballet, in 2013.

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Akira Akiyama and Yasuomi Akimoto
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa/The Tokyo Ballet

All of which brings us to The Tokyo Ballet’s Giselle. This is the company’s first tour to Australia. It was founded in 1964, just two years after the formation of The Australian Ballet. Early on, the company had strong ties to Soviet Russia, and in 1966, it invited a ballet mistress from the Bolshoi Ballet, Olga Tarasova, to stage Giselle on its dancers.

Tarasova taught them the Leonid Lavrosky version, first created in 1944 and then revised in 1955. Lavrosky’s Giselle had been made famous by the Soviet ballerina Galina Ulanova, whose incandescent 1956 London performance was filmed, and can be seen on YouTube. As the critic Anna Kisselgoff has written, that production “became the epitome of the Bolshoi’s flamboyantly dramatic approach to the 19th century repertory.” Lavrosky made the ballet less formal, more naturalistic, and more direct. The first act became freer, the second, more pure. He eliminated the stylized mime passages the characters had used in earlier versions in order to “speak” with one another, replacing them with natural gesture. (This stands in contrast with Australian Ballet’s own Giselle, staged by Maina Gielgud, which draws from the pre-Soviet tradition and keeps much of the mime.)

Ç S Sketch for Act II of Giselle by Alexandre Benois 1

Sketch of Act II, Giselle
Alexandre Benois

But even at The Tokyo Ballet, the production has continued to evolve. In 1981, the sets were changed, and in 2003, a new dance, by the great Soviet star Vladimir Vasiliev, was introduced into the first act. People who know the ballet well will notice that the usual pas de deux for two peasants in that act has been replaced, instead, by a more elaborate dance for four couples.

Ballet, by its very nature, is a constantly evolving art. Each new staging reflects the taste and technique of its time. But, through it all, Giselle remains recognizable and intact, always alive, always touching.

A ghostly figure in a white dress dances against a dark black background.


  • Melbourne / Naarm July 2023