Orchestra Victoria Blog

"Gisellitis": A Love For Which There Is No Cure

Posted on 20 June 2020 by Karen Schofield | Associate Principal Flute, Orchestra Victoria

Giselle, with its score by Adolphe Adam is one of the most loved ballets of all time. So much so, that its popularity appears to have earned it a nickname which suggests a condition of overexposure. “Gisellitis” is sometimes used in our industry (accompanied with an eye roll) as an expression of exasperation when performing a work multiple times. The origins of the term, however, are somewhat kinder to the ballet.

When I approached my fellow Orchestra Victoria members to speak to me about ‘Giselle-itis’, several were concerned that I might be asking them to complain about performing the ballet. So, I set about finding out what the term means to the musicians in the orchestra. Music Director and Chief Conductor of The Australian Ballet, Nicolette Fraillon, also elaborated on what the term means to her in an addendum to this article, as a short digestif, if you will!

“Gisellitis” - the term does indeed sound ‘viral’ and something we might imagine as a slight on the work, when in fact, it is much more than a nickname for the ballet we know and love. The origin of the term is unclear and contentious, but appears to stem from George Balanchine, the legendary choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet.

One suggestion is that Balanchine scoffed at the suggestion that romantic ballet was (or should be portrayed as) ‘soft’ and labelled such opinion as “Gisellitis”. Another source declares that he applied the term to describe dancers who ‘brooded excessively over the interpretation of a role’. Other accounts indicate that it was in reference to his sigh of resignation when a dancer left NYCB, declaring that they wanted to dance other ballets, Giselle, per se: “Ah! Giselle-it-is!”

In any case, the value judgements we apply to the term seem to depend on the lens through which we experience the work. Speaking with OV musicians, individual perceptions of Giselle show commonalities of experience depending on one’s section and role within it.

Di Froomes (Associate Principal Cello) describes her experience of “Gisellitis” as the camaraderie that she experiences during seasons of the ballet: “In the late 80’s and early 90’s Giselle was a ballet in high rotation. Due to the frequency of performing Giselle, the ballet earned the nickname “Grizzle”.”

Di explains that this was due to the physically laborious nature of the string writing and the static load it places on the bow arm. The slow lilts featured in the music require the string players to play single note down beats followed by a succession of rests. This motif means that the string players hold their bodies in physically awkward and tiring positions for long periods of time.

Di tells us that when a dancer (who Balanchine might describe as having “Gisellitis”) took an excessively long time to take a step, the players in the section, waiting with baited breath to place the next beat, would look at each other and hold eye contact then all smile when the next downbeat came. “That sense of camaraderie was how we got through long, tiring and physically demanding seasons.”

In contrast, Jason Bunn (Viola) reveals the plight of the violist when playing one of the most revered solos for their instrument. By the time the solo comes around, the principal viola has spent close to 2 hours accompanying others with off-beats (standard viola procedure, not a melody in sight!). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a cadenza of concertmaster-esque acrobatics challenges this offbeat athlete to fill the theatre with warm earthiness (the gift this instrument gives to the orchestra’s overall timbre). From “needing a bow that never ends” in order to play the sustained pauses required for the lifts in the choreography, the principal viola almost needs two bows to play all the notes of this solo. Instead of the getting the ‘willies’ prior to the solo (excuse the dreadful pun, the vengeful spirits in the ballet are called “Wilis”), the principal viola suffers from their own kind of “Gisellitis”: the nervous energy one has to muster to rise from 2 hours of dreamy accompaniment to play a solo akin to the 100m sprint Olympic Final.

Artists of The Australian Ballet performing in Giselle

Photo Jeff Busby

The violin section has a particularly challenging role with accompaniment, in the form of ‘duetting’ with the dancers. Matt Hassall explains that although the tempos are often slow, Giselle requires absolute precision and concentration from the violinists to provide the flexibility that the dancers require to succeed in the extraordinarily difficult choreography.

Matt also reveals that for him, the term “Gisellitis” is a reminder of falling in love with ballet as a child. “Giselle is the quintessential romantic ballet. It epitomises that period. It is magical to watch; the ethereal blue light, mist, long floating skirts, trees and a lake set the ghostly scene in Act Two and imbue it with a sense of drama.”

Principal First Violin, Yi Wang, has played the role of concertmaster in this ballet numerous times and admits that, for once, the violin plays ‘second fiddle’ to the viola. “The violin solos are insubstantial in comparison to the viola solo, which in character and melody, is divine. It’s beautiful.” Yi enjoys this departure from the usual script in which it is the concertmaster endowed with the glorious solos. Yi suggests it is the viola’s unique timbre, its warmth and earthiness, that led Adam to write the solo into the viola part, as it so effectively depicts the character of Giselle, a beautiful young peasant girl.

Adam didn’t stop with the viola in his quest to promote the less ‘flashy’ instruments of the orchestra (I can say that, as one of the flautists!). Joshua De Graaf (Associate Principal Oboe) is overcome with “Gisellitis” just after the famous viola solo due to the appearance of an unlikely Oboe and Cor Anglais duet that follows. Josh explains that this passage, a beautiful and haunting melody that enriches the pas de deux choreography, is the first example of its type in ballet repertoire.

Thankfully, composers to follow (Tchaikovsky depicting the Mirlitons in Nutcracker and Odette in Swan Lake, Prokofiev depicting Juliet, Vine depicting the Marschallin in The Silver Rose) had the sense to pass those types of lines across to the flutes sitting next door! In these ballets, there are many high, fast, or sustained passages that are real feats of endurance and control for the flute players, which we love to play, but also which set the heart racing!

Principal Flute, Lisa-Maree Amos explains that Giselle is a wonderfully fun ballet to play because of Adams’ orchestration. “There are no cadenzas or difficult solos to think through, and the writing is fun. The music is very dance-like! That is, it is filled with a plethora of dance styles, like a joyous history of dance telling the story. It isn’t riddled with awkward passages, and the range for the flute is kept away from the extremes and focuses on the registers and keys that sit easily on the instrument. I think the uncluttered woodwind sound is unique in this ballet, and it is really enjoyable to be able to focus on this blend of sound, the ensemble coordination and teamwork.”

Teamwork and collaboration seem to be a commonly held expression of “Gisellitis” for the musicians. Equity is woven in at every opportunity: the melody heralding Giselle’s first entrance is shared between the two sections that are often used to characterise the leading ladies. Lisa-Maree elaborates: “There are still times where the flute mirrors the first violins as in Giselle’s first entrance with an elegant andante.”

Such characterisations have stood the test of time because they depict particular character types so well! Just as the innocent young maidens’ lines are often written into the flute or violin part, hunting scenes are often depicted by the heralds of bold, warm, glossy horn calls. Linda Hewett (Principal Third Horn) talks about the ‘la Chasse’ section and how that is her moment of “Gisellitis”. “It is always a fun and exciting moment in the ballet. It sounds so rustic and there is nothing quite like the sound of hunting horns to conjure up images of returning from the fox hunt.” Linda particularly loves The Australian Ballet’s production (created by Mania Gielgud) as they bring (real) dogs onto the stage!

Which reminds me about a funny anecdote an OV colleague told me years ago about the time real chickens flew into the pit during an opera. And you all thought the net was covering us to stop a wayward dancer pirouetting right into the violin section!

We look forward to helping you create your own moments of “Gisellitis” in the future.

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