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Dance Highlight: Giselle's Mad Scene

Captivating choreography and gripping storytelling come together in a pivotal moment in ballet history.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

27 January 2014 at 3.48pm | 2 Comments

The first performances of Giselle over one hundred and fifty years ago took place at a time of remarkable innovation in the world of dance. Giselle delighted audiences then, and to this day remains at the centre of the classical repertory. Its popularity can be attributed to its fulfilment of the ideals of both Romantic ballet and of classical technique – a captivating combination of plot and spectacle, reality and fantasy, achieved through challenging choreography and dramatic storytelling. The balance of these two elements is brilliantly encapsulated in the mad scene, where the joyous atmosphere established in the first act unravels and the village descends into turmoil. The focus of this scene is, of course, the peasant girl Giselle. Unable to cope when she discovers that her fiancé Loys is in fact Count Albrecht in disguise, and that he is engaged to another, she loses her mind and commits suicide.

Peter Wright stressed that when performing Giselle ‘The important thing is to make the story and the characters believable’. His production preserves much of the mime woven into the fabric of the ballet at its first performances in the 1840s. The use of mime as a dramatic device was popular in 19th-century ballet, and precise descriptions of gestured conversations and monologues in early rehearsal scores for Giselle suggest that mime was almost as important as the ballet’s danced choreography. In the mad scene the characters on stage portray a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts; disbelief, horror and – for Giselle – heartbreak and loss of reason through gesture, body language and facial expressions. The ability to make Giselle’s mime coherent and believable, and to sustain the drama of the scene until she drops dead, is regarded by many as the ultimate endorsement of a prima ballerina’s talent as a performer.

However, the mad scene calls for more than an accomplished actress alone. It is carefully structured to support and enhance the actions of Giselle and those around her in order to achieve maximum pathos. Adolphe Adam’s score for the ballet plays an important role here. The composer clearly collaborated closely with Giselle’s original choreographers, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot (whose work influenced that of Marius Petipa and Peter Wright). Each dramatic development is skilfully reinforced by a musical idea – for example, an obsessive repeating figure in the violins played at a gradually rising pitch increases the tension as Giselle discovers who Albrecht really is, and an eerie high-pitched trill over disturbing, pulsing strings seems to signify madness creeping in.

Towards the end of the mad scene we hear themes that have appeared earlier in the ballet. These musical leitmotifs and their accompanying choreography originally illustrated Giselle’s youthful exuberance and devotion to Loys; their reappearance here highlights her downfall. The bouncing staccato tunes of the dance motifs have become distorted and fragmented, morphing into a haunting oboe lament, while the choreography that originally comprised light, sprightly ballonnés, ballottés and jetés is now performed with no elevation, feet dragging along the floor, head flopping and arms flailing. There is even a premonition of Giselle’s fate in the fleeting chromatic gestures from the theme of the Wilis as she stumbles distractedly from one side of the stage to the other.

By the time Giselle collapses at the end of the scene, the Romantic unity so skilfully established during the rest of Act I has been utterly annihilated. This demolition, achieved through the consummate skills of choreographers, composer and dancers alike, is not only a gripping spectacle in its own right but also gives credibility to Giselle’s descent into the haunted world of the second act. In this realm, where nothing is familiar, we are able to understand the plight of the eerie, shrouded Wilis.

Giselle runs from 26 February-15 April 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production will be relayed live to cinemas on 6 April 2016. Find your nearest cinema and sign up to our mailing list.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Celia Blakey and the Jean Sainsbury Royal Opera House Fund.

What's your favourite momment of Giselle?

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

27 January 2014 at 3.48pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged ballonné, ballotté, by Peter Wright, classical, dance highlight, giselle, Jean Coralli, jeté, Jules Perrot, mad scene, Marius Petipa, mime, Production, Romantic

This article has 2 comments

  1. Having read lots of comments about the cinema relay of Giselle and criticism of too many close ups, the above clip of Marianela Nunez in the mad scene illustrates the point. Yes, in the close up we can see the expression on her face but the whole bodyline expresses how she feels and is very moving when seeing the ballet at ROH. I saw Lauren Cuthbertson on Saturday afternoon and she was mesmerising in the mad scene. I chose not to go to the cinema on Monday because I knew the close ups would drive ME mad!

  2. Valerie, my husband was making exactly the same comment when we saw the cinemacast of SB. I've seen dance editing done much worse than this---sometimes you get photogs or video editors who don't seem to know that if you can't see the musicians, you can still hear the music, but if you can't see the dancers, there was no point in going to the production. I noticed less about faces and more about truncated bodies. Sarah Lamb's feet are so gorgeous you just want to see all of her, not just her from the knees up. Maybe the ROH should hire us as video editing consultants!

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