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Ballet Essentials: Giselle

A quick guide to the quintessential Romantic ballet.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

16 January 2014 at 10.56am | 2 Comments

Giselle is the quintessential Romantic ballet, combining a memorable story with exquisite choreography and vivid historical detail.

The story

When Giselle, a gentle young peasant girl, falls in love with simple villager Loys her mother is instinctively suspicious. Hoping that she can persuade her daughter to marry the forester Hilarion, she warns Giselle off Loys and invokes the legend of the Wilis – ghosts of jilted young girls who died before their wedding day, that return to torment their lovers to death with incessant dancing. When Loys's true identity is revealed, and Giselle becomes one of the Wilis, Loys is threatened with a similar fate. But Giselle's love survives beyond the grave.


Poet Théophile Gautier took inspiration for Giselle from Heinrich Heine’s book Über Deutschland. Charmed by Heine’s description of a mist softened by German moonlight, and ‘snow-coloured Wilis who waltz pitilessly’, Gautier, with the assistance of dramatist Vernoy de Saint-Georges, devised a scenario to be realized by choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.

The music

Astonishingly, Adolphe Adam wrote his score for Giselle in under a month. The result is a perfect evocation of the atmosphere of the forest, the strong emotions of the characters and the ghostly world of the Wilis. It is the earliest ballet still performed for which the composer used a structure of musical leitmotifs, where individual characters and themes are represented by recurring musical phrases.

The production

Encompassing innocence, pain and boundless compassion, the role of Giselle is a daunting technical test and a unique acting challenge. Act I ranges from her early youthful abandon to the concluding devastating mad scene, while the hypnotic corps de ballet scenes in the otherworldly 'White Act' provide a stunning showcase not only for Giselle but for a host of leading dancers and the entire Company, dressed in ghostly white costumes lit by the forest moon.

Giselle is the most influential of all Romantic ballets and has remained firmly at the centre of the classical repertory since its premiere in Paris in 1841. Peter Wright’s production for The Royal Ballet has received more than 550 performances since its premiere in 1985. It casts a spell over audiences with its themes of enduring love and supernatural forces, heightened by Wright’s sensitive staging and atmospheric designs by John Macfarlane.

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Giselle runs from 19 January-9 March 2018. Tickets are sold out, although returns may become available and a limited number of tickets will be released each week as part of Friday Rush.

This article has 2 comments

  1. The dress rehearsal of Giselle was just beautiful from the scenery and lighting to the dancing and music.

  2. Patrick Hogan responded on 17 January 2014 at 6:48pm Reply

    Fairy footed Giselle today on point. The rhytmic sound of thirty two ballerinas hopping elegantly back and forth across the stage.

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