Is this the most poignant moment in ballet? Betrayed and heartbroken, Giselle loses her reason – and her life – in a spectacular tour de force for the ballerina.
08 Jun 2016
In Act I of Giselle, the light-hearted bucolic mood swerves into darkness when the duke Albrecht, who has been posing as a peasant to woo the village girl Giselle, is unmasked. Giselle realises Albrecht has been lying to her and is already engaged to a noblewoman, and her beautiful air castle crumbles to ruins. So profound is the shock that she becomes unhinged by it. The "mad scene" that follows is an emotionally charged sequence that draws on a dancer's deepest dramatic powers.
After an initial flurry of tears, Giselle rises from her mother's embrace, stunned to a zombie-like trance by the collapse of her illusions.
Her hapless lover looks on helplessly as she re-enacts scenes of their idyll - playing "he loves me, he loves me not" with a daisy, dancing at the harvest festival. Adolphe Adam's score touchingly revives their love theme, but with a slower rhythm and a melancholy tone.
Giselle echoes the steps of her happy pas de deux with Albrecht ... but this time she is alone, her arm twined with that of a phantom lover, and her dancing is limping, halting, as the clockwork of her frail heart runs down.
Our former Principal Artist Lisa Bolte was coached (over the phone!) by Svetlana Beriosova, one of the great Giselles, as she was preparing for her debut in the role. "She talked to me for two hours, going through every step of the mad scene. She talked about weaving a pattern on the ground with [Albrecht's] sword, making the sign of the snake, representing evil ... Giselle thinks back to dancing with him, to being in love, and the concerned faces of her friends flash by, but she is looking into the face of her imaginary Albrecht, thinking, 'No, but he was just here, he loved me' … And that’s what it’s like when you go through a huge terrible shock in your life, you can’t believe it’s happening to you; images from the past flash through your mind, time slows down and speeds up."
Towards the end of the scene, Giselle starts seeing things flitting past her in the air ... the Wilis! Her mother had always warned her that if she danced too much, her heart would give out, and she would die and become a Wili, a ghost in the forest ... now, close to death, she sees their shapes around her. She is growing cold, she rubs her arms for warmth; for some ballerinas, this is the approach of the heart attack. For others, it anticipates the cold of the grave.
Finally, Giselle's weak heart stops, and she falls lifeless into her mother's arms. The village is in turmoil; its sunny celebration of the harvest gives way to deepest mourning, and the scene is set for the ghostly woodlands of Act II, where Giselle, now a Wili, will meet her lover once again.