The Australian Ballet

Giselle: Meet the Characters

Giselle, which premiered in 1841, has stood the test of time – not only because of the otherworldly beauty of its “white” act, but because of the universal passion and drama of its storyline.

First love, betrayal, jealousy, hurt and forgiveness … we’ve all been through them, and that’s what makes Giselle resonate in the chamber of our hearts.

Upping the emotional ante is the room for interpretation within the main characters. Each dancer playing Giselle, Albrecht and Hilarion and Myrtha will bring their particular slant to the role, which can change the flavour of the whole ballet. It’s why Balanchine compared Giselle to Hamlet, and why it’s a ballet worth seeing again and again.

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Giselle

She’s the village belle, newly crowned the Harvest Queen, and beloved by all for her sweet nature and ebullience. She loves to dance, but her heart is weak – it will ultimately kill her when she’s reeling from the shock of discovering her lover is not what he seems. Fragile as she is in life, in death she reveals a new strength as she protects her lover from the wilis, and achieves a tender and luminous forgiveness. The great ballerinas have interpreted Giselle in many different ways, some emphasising her flightiness and delicacy, some her womanly gentleness. Here’s a fascinating article contrasting two interpretations, with video examples.

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Albrecht

These are the facts: the restless duke Albrecht disguises himself as a peasant and insinuates himself into Giselle’s heart, all the time knowing that he’s betrothed to a noblewoman and it can only end in tears. But does he act in the heedless fervour of true love, unable to tear himself away, or is he just a heartless cad slumming it with a pretty peasant girl? Both interpretations are valid. Whichever way it’s played, in Act II we see an Albrecht truly repentant, and changed forever by his experience with Giselle’s loving ghost.

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Hilarion

Oh Hilarion – the saddest of ballet’s second-string men. Consumed by unrequited love for Giselle, jealous of the handsome stranger, he unmasks Albrecht and then has to watch his beloved die from the shock. Oh, and he gets danced to death by ghosts when he tries to visit her tomb. Would Giselle have saved him if she’d been out of her grave when he arrived? We’d like to think so.

Hilarion, too, can be played in different ways – as an uncouth, kind-of-scary stalker, or as a good guy who genuinely loves Giselle.

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Myrtha

The role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is an absolute gift to a ballerina – regal, frozen, and yet alive with malice, Myrtha is scary as hell as she heads her band of vengeful undead maidens. On an emotional level, perhaps Myrtha is supposed to show us the monsters we turn into when we can’t forgive or forget – when we abandon mercy.