Romantic ballet in two acts
Music by Adolphe Adam
Libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier

World Première
28th June 1841
Salle Le Peletier, Paris
Choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli

Original 1841 Cast
Carlotta Grisi

Duke Albert of Silesia
Lucien Petipa

Jean Coralli

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
Adèle Dumilâtre

Saint Petersburg Première
30th December [O.S. 18th December] 1842
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre

Original 1842 Cast
Elena Andreyanova

Première of Petipa’s first revival
17th February [O.S. 5th February] 1884
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1884 Cast
Maria Gorshenkova

Duke Albrecht of Silesia
Pavel Gerdt

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
Sofia Petrova

Première of Petipa’s second revival
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1887 Cast
Emma Bessone

Duke Albrecht of Silesia
Enrico Cecchetti

Première of Petipa’s third revival
17th September [O.S. 5th September] 1899
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1899 Cast
Henriëtta Grimaldi

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
Olga Preobrazhenskaya

Première of Petipa’s final revival
13th May [O.S. 30th April] 1903
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1903 Cast
Anna Pavlova

Duke Albrecht of Silesia
Nikolai Legat

Pavel Gerdt

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
Julia Sedova

Set in medieval Germany, Giselle, a beautiful young peasant girl, a free spirit, is in love with the handsome stranger, “Loys”, who in truth is the Duke Albrecht and is betrothed to the Princess Bathilde. When the forester, Hilarion, also in love with Giselle, exposes his rival’s true identity, the consequences are tragic – Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart in Albrecht’s arms. After her burial in the forest, Giselle’s spirit is summoned from her grave to join the Wilis, the vengeful ghosts of young girls who have died before their wedding days. To avenge themselves, they rise from their graves every night and force any man who crosses their path into an endless dance, until he collapses and dies of exhaustion. When a remorseful Albrecht visits Giselle’s grave, she appears to him in spirit form. He begs for forgiveness and Giselle, her love undiminished, forgives him. However, Albrecht is targeted by the Wilis and their merciless queen Myrtha forces him to dance. Unwilling to let him die, Giselle protects her lover, defending him until the morning bells herald the dawn. The Wilis are forced to disappear and Giselle, whose love has transcended death, is forever freed from their power and returns to her grave to rest in peace.

Carlotta Grisi as Giselle (1841)
Carlotta Grisi as Giselle (1841)

Giselle is the most famous of Romantic ballets and is the creation of three great French artists: Ballet Masters Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli and composer Adolphe Adam. The libretto was written by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier, though it was Gautier who initially began working on the story. He was inspired by two sources – one was the poem Fantômes from Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales, which tells the story of a beautiful 15 year old Spanish girl who loves to dance, but dies after a night of frenzied dancing at a ball. The other was a prose passage from Heinrich Heine’s L’Allemagne about supernatural maidens called “Wilis”, which are based on the Vila, a fairy maiden from Slavic mythology.

In parts of Austria, there exists a tradition… of Slavic origin: the tradition of the night-dancer, who is known, in Slavic countries, under the name Wili. Wilis are young brides-to-be who die before their wedding day. The poor young creatures cannot rest peacefully in their graves. In their stilled hearts and lifeless feet, there remains a love for dancing which they were unable to satisfy during their lifetimes. At midnight, they rise out of their graves, gather together in troops on the roadside and woe to the young man who comes across them! He is forced to dance with them; they unleash their wild passion, and he dances with them until he falls dead. Dressed in their wedding gowns, with wreaths of flowers on their heads and glittering rings on their fingers, the Wilis dance in the moonlight likes elves. Their faces, though white as snow, have the beauty of youth. They laugh with a joy so hideous, they call you so seductively, they have an air of such sweet promise, that these dead bacchantes are irresistable. – quoted in Heinrich Heine’s L’Allemagne, published in 1835

Gautier thought these two stories worked well for the new ballet and co-wrote the libretto with Saint-Georges. The finished scenario was for a ballet entitled Giselle.

Giselle was a follower of La Sylphide, touching the familiar Romantic territory in which the real world meets the supernatural, which again takes the guise of supernatural fairy or spirit maidens. Unlike the Sylph, however, who was born a fairy maiden, the heroine Giselle is a mortal peasant girl, who becomes a spirit maiden after dying when it is revealed that her lover has deceived her. While both the Sylph and Giselle meet the fate of death, Giselle ultimately emerges triumphant as she resists succumbing to the vengeful nature of the Wilis by protecting Albrecht from their deadly vengeance and is freed from their power.

Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli were commissioned as the choreographers of the new ballet, with Perrot choreographing for the principals and soloists and Coralli choreographing for the corps de ballet. The role of Giselle was created especially for Perrot’s muse and lover Carlotta Grisi, the role of Duke Albert (later renamed Albrecht) was created for Lucien Petipa and the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, was created for the French Prima Ballerina Adèle Dumilâtre. The ballet premièred in Paris on the 28th June 1841 and was a tremendous success.

Lithograph: Giselle is crowned as Queen of the Vintage (1845)
Lithograph: Giselle is crowned as Queen of the Vintage (1845)

London première
Nine months later, Giselle was staged in London on the 12th March 1842 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, with Grisi in the titular role. The first London production was produced by the Ballet Master Deshayes with assistance from Perrot and the première was another tremendous success. However, due to the difference in size of Her Majesty’s Theatre to that of the Salle Le Peletieur (the latter was bigger and had more depth), the ballet could not be staged on the same lavish scale as the original Parisian production. In an article for the Courrier de l’Europe, the Vicomtesse de Malleville expressed her disappointment in the London production, stating that certain numbers were cut – the Peasant Pas de deux in the first act was omitted – and dismissed the staging as “an inevitable fiasco”. However skimpy the production may have been to some, however, the enthusiasm the new ballet received in London is undeniable; it was even shared by the British Monarchy. Thirteen performances of Giselle starring Grisi were held in London and among those who attended two of these performances was Queen Victoria. For a ball held at Buckingham Palace in April, the composer Jullien was commissioned to arrange a quadrille, a galop and a waltz based on Adam’s score.

Grisi returned to Paris in April 1843 and the Director of Her Majesty’s Theatre, Benjamin Lumley, planned to stage Giselle again for the following season. However, he was unable to engage Grisi for the 1843-44 season and dreaded the thought of omitting such a popular ballet from the repertoire, so he had to look elsewhere for another ballerina to dance the tragic peasant girl. The ballerina who he successfully engaged was Fanny Elssler, who had recently returned to Europe after her tour of America. This engagement marked not only the return of Giselle to the London stage, but also Elssler’s début in the role. Elssler’s début performance as Giselle took place on the 30th March 1843; this marked the occasion when another great ballerina of the Romantic Era débuted in what is now the most famous Romantic Ballet. Elssler’s portrayal of the role was very different from that of Grisi and reaction to her performance was mixed. The overriding reason for this was because, unlike Grisi, the roles of spiritual, supernatural maidens were not Elssler’s forte, as her talents and abilities were more suitable for the earthly, mortal heroines. Therefore, her performance of the second act lacked that spiritual, otherworldly grace and elegance that the role of Giselle demands, but her performance of the first act was much stronger. Everyone agreed that what Elssler lacked in the second act, she made up for it with what she brought to the first act. Elssler performed in Giselle eight times that season and both she and Grisi would return to London the following season to perform the role again.

Adele Dumilatre as Myrtha (1841)
Adèle Dumilâtre as Myrtha (1841)

Giselle in Russia
Like many Parisian ballets, Giselle did not last in its Parisian or London homes. Perrot and Coralli’s version was performed for the final time at the Paris Opéra in 1868 and it was in Russia that Giselle was given a permanent home. A year after its world première, the ballet was staged in Saint Petersburg for the Imperial Ballet by the Ballet Master Antione Titus on the 30th December [O.S. 18th December] 1842, especially for the definitive Russian Prima Ballerina of the Romantic Era, Elena Andreyanova. Five years later, Petipa arrived in Saint Petersburg, having been appointed Premier Danseur of the Imperial Theatres, and made his début in Titus’s production in the role of Albrecht on the 5th December [O.S. 23rd November] 1847, with Andreyanova in the titular role. The following year, Fanny Elssler arrived in Russia and made her début in Titus’s production on the 22nd October [O.S. 10th October] 1848, with Petipa as Albrecht. Since before his arrival in Russia, Petipa was very familiar with Giselle; not only had his brother Lucien originated in the role of Albrecht, Petipa himself had previously danced the role for his début performance in Bordeaux in 1843 and again in 1844 for his début performance in Madrid. His knowledge of Giselle would prove to be very vital for the ballet’s future and preservation.

Giselle - Act 2 - 1841
Lithograph of Act 2 – Giselle appears to Albrecht (1841)

Shortly after Elssler’s arrival in the Imperial Russian capital, Perrot arrived in Saint Petersburg as the new Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatres. Among the Parisian ballets that he and other Frenchmen had created, Perrot staged his own Russian production of Giselle and for this staging, he was assisted by Petipa. Perrot revised the choreographic contributions of Coralli for the corps de ballet and although Petipa worked to Perrot’s indications, he also made his own independent touches to the ballet, especially to the dance of the Wilis in the second act. While the staging of the production was in progress, Fanny Elssler was performing in Moscow at the time and was unavailable for more engagements in Saint Petersburg; she gave her last performance in Russia in the winter of 1850. Fittingly as it turned out, the ballerina who would dance Giselle for Perrot’s Russian staging was nonother than the original Giselle herself, Carlotta Grisi, who arrived in Saint Petersburg in the autumn of 1850 and cast in the role of Albrecht was Christian Johansson. Perrot’s Russian staging of Giselle premièred on the 20th October [O.S. 8th October] 1850 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. This new Saint Petersburg staging would further secure the preservation of Giselle in the ballet repertoire, but after Perrot’s departure from Russia, it would be Petipa’s revival that became the definitive version of the ballet from which all modern productions derive.

Maria Gorshenkova as Giselle (1887)
Maria Gorshenkova as Giselle (1884)

Petipa staged his first revival of Giselle in 1884 for the Prima Ballerina Maria Gorshenkova. For this revival, Ludwig Minkus composed a new pas de deux that Petipa added to the first act for Gorshenkova. This pas de deux did not find a permanent home in the ballet, but the music has survived and it resurfaces now and then when used in ballet galas. Petipa also further elaborated the touches he had made to Perrot’s 1850 staging, expanding the dances into an elaborated Grand Pas des Wilis. Despite the addition of the new pas de deux composed by Minkus, the first act seems to have remained untouched from the Perrot/Coralli version, while the second act was expanded. Petipa’s first revival of Giselle premièred on the 17th February [O.S. 5th February] 1884. He would revive the ballet again four times; his second revival was staged in 1887 for the Italian Prima Ballerina Emma Bessone. He revived the ballet for a third time in 1889 for Elena Cornalba and again in 1899 for Henriëtta Grimaldi. In 1903, Petipa staged his final and most important revival for the young Anna Pavlova, which premièred on the 13th May [O.S. 30th April] 1903 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. Petipa himself coached Pavlova for the role and with her remarkable jumps, abandon and soulfulness, Pavlova set a new standard for Giselle. The ageing Petipa must have seen in this remarkable artist the embodiment of the Romantic ballerinas he had known and admired in his youth.

Petipa’s final revival of Giselle was notated in the Stepanov notation method; the second act was notated in 1899 and the first act was notated in 1903 during the rehearsals in which Petipa was coaching Pavlova in the title role. The notation scores are part of the Sergeyev Collection. The Parisian version of the ballet was also notated in the 1860s by Henri Justamant.

Anna Pavlova as Giselle in the mad scene (1903)
Anna Pavlova as Giselle in the mad scene (1903)

Giselle in the 20th century
Giselle was apparently Pavlova’s favourite ballet and she would be one of three great interpreters of the titular role in the early twentieth century. She first performed in the ballet in the west in Warsaw in 1904. In 1908 and 1909, a troupe of dancers from the Imperial Ballet led by Pavlova, Nikolai Legat and Alexander Shiryaev included Giselle in their tour of the Baltic States, Scandinavia and Germany. Pavlova went onto dance in Giselle with her company many times on her global tours, performing in the ballet in such places as Vienna, the USA, London, Chile and Argentina. Among those who saw Pavlova as Giselle was Dame Alicia Markova, who would later go onto to become another great Giselle in her own right.

Tamara Karsavina as Giselle and Vaslav Nijinsky as Albrecht (1910)
Tamara Karsavina as Giselle and Vaslav Nijinsky as Albrecht (1910)

After Pavlova, the second great interpreter of the epoch was Tamara Karsavina, who débuted as Giselle in Prague on the 24th April 1909. Karsavina later made her Saint Petersburg début in the role on the 8th October [O.S. 26th September] 1910, with Samuil Andrianov as Albrecht. There were other ballerinas of the Imperial Ballet who attempted the role of Giselle at the time, but, unlike Pavlova and Karsavina, they were not very successful. Matilda Kschessinskaya made her début as Giselle in 1916 when she was 44 years old and it was one of the final roles that she ever danced in Russia. Once in Saint Petersburg, one of Karsavina’s planned performances as Giselle was given instead to Agrippina Vaganova at the last minute, which greatly peeved Karsavina since the ballet was one of her favourites and she considered Vaganova to be unsuitable for the role. Much to her delight, however, Karsavina said that Vaganova’s performance was a “complete disaster”.

Ten years after Karsavina’s début as Giselle, the third great interpreter of the role finally came to light and that artist was the Prima Ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, who many agree was the supreme Giselle of the twentieth century. Spessivtseva was taught and coached for the role by Nikolai Legat and made her début in Petrograd on the 30th March 1919, with Pierre Vladimirov as Albrecht. Among those who saw Spessivtseva as Giselle and was greatly inspired by her performance was Galina Ulanova. Ulanova would go onto become another great interpreter of Giselle and when she danced the role in London as part of the Bolshoi Ballet’s first tour of the west in 1956, she asked Sir Anton Dolin how her performance of Giselle, especially in the first act, compared to that of Spessivtseva.

Olga Spessivtseva as Giselle (1930)
Olga Spessivtseva as Giselle (1930)

In 1910, Giselle made its return to Paris after a forty-two year absence when Sergei Diaghilev staged Petipa’s revival for the Ballet Russes. Diaghilev’s staging included choreographic revisions by Mikhail Fokine and decors and costumes by Alexandre Benois. Diaghilev’s revival of Giselle premièred on the 17th June 1910 at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra, with Tamara Karsavina as Giselle and Vaslav Nijinsky as Albrecht. Since then, Giselle has been a prominent member of the repertoires of ballet companies all over the world, staged in various productions. Some of the most famous modern productions include those by Sir Peter Wright for the Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Bayerisches Staatsballett, Yuri Grigorovich for the Bolshoi Ballet and Yvette Chauviré for La Scala Ballet. In 1942, Nikolai Sergeyev staged the ballet for Mona Inglesby’s International Ballet, staging the choreography from the Imperial Ballet production from his notation scores. The 20th century also produced many more great interpreters of the titular role, including Alicia Alonso, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Yvette Chauviré, Natalia Makarova and Carla Fracci.

In 2019, Alexei Ratmansky staged a new production of Giselle for the Bolshoi Ballet that is based primarily on the Sergeyev notation scores, but also uses details from the Justamant notations scores. Ratmansky’s production of Giselle premièred on the 21st November 2019 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, with Olga Smirnova as Giselle, Artemy Belyakov as Albrecht, Eric Svolkin as Hilarion and Angelina Vlashinets as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.

An interesting fact about the passing down of Giselle from generation to generation is that the scenario underwent changes that have made modern productions differ quite vastly from the productions of the 19th century. Perhaps the biggest deviations from the 19th century productions is the presentation of some of the characters, though it always depends on the production. Some productions portray Albrecht as deceitful and haughty, who is only toying with Giselle, while others portray him as warm-hearted and loving, who is genuinely in love with the peasant girl, despite his betrothal to Bathilde, another character whose portrayal has underwent change. In some productions, Bathilde is portrayed as cold and cruel, while in others, she is kind and gentle and another character whose portrayal differs is Hilarion; some productions portray him in a somewhat heroic light, while in others, he is Albrecht’s bitterly jealous rival.

Tamara Karsavina as Giselle (1909)
Tamara Karsavina as Giselle (1909)

The portrayal of these characters in the 19th century productions is as follows – Albrecht is a good-hearted, caring nobleman, who is madly in love with a peasant girl, despite his betrothal and their differences in social ranks; his relationship with Giselle is one of genuine love and affection, not a careless and selfish seduction. Bathilde is a kind and gentle noblewoman, who is drawn to Giselle and mourns for the peasant girl when she dies. Hilarion is the local forester, who, from the very beginning, is bitterly jealous of Albrecht and Giselle’s love and his jealousy leads him to ruining Giselle’s happiness when he discovers Albrecht’s true identity, but his actions ultimately result in her death. The changes made to these characters occurred during the 20th century, especially in Russia where the roles of the aristocrats became villains and the peasants became heroes; in the love triangle between Giselle, Albrecht and Hilarion, the roles of the two men were switched – Albrecht became the villain and Hilarion became the hero. As described by Yuri Slonimsky, this switch was ideologically driven by the Soviet ideology that glorified the peasants and demonised the aristocracy. However, the switch only proved to be illogical since Hilarion remained the one to die at the hands of the Wilis, while Albrecht was still forgiven and rescued.

There have also been significant changes made to certain moments in the story, with the most distinctive being the opening sequence, the cause of Giselle’s death and the ending. The standard opening sequence with the meeting between Giselle and Albrecht shows Albrecht knocking on Giselle’s door, after which, she emerges from her cottage and he seduces her with his flirtations and declarations of love. In the 19th century productions, however, when the ballet begins, Giselle and Albrecht are already a couple; Albrecht knocks on Giselle’s door and when she emerges, she embraces him. Then she tells him that the previous night, she dreamt of him falling in love with another woman and he comforts her by reassuring her of his love. It is not certain when the love scene of the first act was changed to the scenario widely used today, but it seems to have been sometime in the early 20th century.

Anna Pavlova as Giselle (1903)
Anna Pavlova as Giselle (1903)

The cause of Giselle’s death varies in different productions; in some, she suffers from a weak heart and when she goes mad, her heart finally gives out and she dies; in other productions, especially in Sir Peter Wright’s production, she kills herself with Albrecht’s sword, which is given as the reason for why she is buried in the forest in non-consecrated ground. In the 19th century scenario, there is no suicide, but rather an attempted suicide – Giselle tries to stab herself with Albrecht’s sword, but does not succeed when Albrecht stops her and takes the sword from her. This is another distinctive change in modern productions, since today, it is usually Hilarion who stops Giselle from stabbing herself, though in Gautier’s original libretto, it was her mother Berthe who stopped her. As Alexei Ratmansky explained, the music for the scene does not suggest suicide and Giselle dies of a broken heart, implying that she has danced herself to death. The curtain falls on everyone surrounding her lifeless body and mourning her, including Albrecht, Berthe, Hilarion and Bathilde. Giselle is buried in the forest rather a consecrated graveyard because, as was commonly believed at the time period in which the story is set, everyone believes that she was possessed by an unholy spirit, which caused her descend into madness, therefore making it inappropriate for her to be buried in a Christian grave.

Another interesting change is the ending. Many modern productions end with Giselle disappearing or returning to her grave after bidding farewell to Albrecht, who is left sorrowing and alone. The scenario of the 19th century productions, however, presented a different ending that some modern productions have restored. After the Wilis are forced to disappear when dawn breaks, Giselle comforts Albrecht one last time and he carries her to a flowery mound. As she disappears, Bathilde and her retinue arrive looking for Albrecht and Giselle tells him that he should marry Bathilde. Albrecht is grief-stricken, but the last wish of his beloved Giselle is sacred. After she has gone, he picks some flowers from the mound and kisses them, takes a few small steps towards Bathilde and the courtiers and collapses into their arms, with his hands reaching out to Bathilde, who reaches back. This ending is parallel to the ending of the first act when the peasants crowd around Giselle’s body. It seems, however, that by 1899, Petipa was using a different ending because in the ending recorded in the 1899 Sergeyev notation scores, after Giselle disappears, Albrecht collapses and dies suddenly and his body is then found by his squire Wilfred and four male courtiers. This is the ending that was used in the 1930s production of Giselle that was danced by the Vic-Wells Ballet and was also apparently used in Anna Pavlova’s production.

Vaslav Nijinsky as Albrecht (1910)
Vaslav Nijinsky as Albrecht (1910)

Pas seul

The Pas seul is the famous variation for Giselle in the first act that is retained in many modern productions. This variation was composed by Riccardo Drigo in 1887, though the music is usually mistakenly credited to Ludwig Minkus, as Adam Lopez has discovered. It was composed for Elena Cornalba for her performance in Fiametta in 1887 and she must have transferred it into the first act of Giselle when Petipa revived the ballet for her that same year. Unlike the other signature pieces created and added for various ballerinas before, the Pas seul found a permanent home in the Imperial Ballet repertoire and was performed by the ballerinas who succeeded Cornalba in the role of Giselle. The variation was first introduced to the west by Olga Spessivtseva when she performed it at the Paris Opéra in 1924. The Pas seul’s popularity with ballerinas, however, had its cost as the original variation was forgotten. Tamara Karsavina was the last ballerina to have opted for the original, but alas, her performance as Giselle was never recorded.

Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Giselle and Nikolai Legat as Albrecht (1899)
Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Giselle and Nikolai Legat as Albrecht (1899)

Peasant Pas de deux

The Peasant Pas de deux is another of the most famous passages in Giselle and has an interesting history. Before the 1841 Paris première, one of the Paris Opèra ballerinas, Nathalie Fitz-James was determined to have her own pas in Giselle. Like many of her colleagues, Fitz-James was a mistress of one of the Opèra’s most influential patrons and used her relationship with him to influence the arrangement of a new pas to be added for her. However, Adolphe Adam was unavailable at the time to compose more music, so Jean Coralli had to look elsewhere. In the end, he arranged a new pas de deux for Fitz-James to music by the German composer, Friedrich Burgmüller from his suite Souvenirs de Ratisbonne. The new pas was later christened as the Pas des paysans (aka Peasant Pas de deux); it was first performed by Fitz-James and the danseur, Auguste Mabille and has remained in Giselle ever since.

In Petipa’s time, the Peasant Pas de deux was performed by the likes of Tamara Karsavina, Mikhail Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky. The Sergeyev Collection includes notation scores for the pas de deux when it was performed by Agrippina Vaganova and Mikhail Obukhov. In most modern productions, the Peasant Pas de deux is performed by at least six dancers, which is not its original concept or how it was staged by Petipa.


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Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.