There’s something special about Giselle. Ever since its gas-lit premiere in 1841 at the Paris Opera, audiences have thrilled to the spectral sights and emotional heights of this romantic ballet. Dancers still covet the so-called Hamlet of ballerina roles – that of a love-struck peasant girl who goes mad and dies of grief after discovering she’s been duped by her well-born beau, only to join the undead ranks of the Wilis, a white-clad corps de ballet of vengeful female spirits intent on dancing faithless men to death.
Originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, later revised in Russia by imperial ballet master Marius Petipa, the tale has proven creative catnip for choreographers seeking to reimagine the romantic classic around more contemporary concerns. This autumn, three Giselles are on tour in the UK. In addition to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s traditional production, English National Ballet are reviving Akram Khan’s 2016 version, which transposes medieval feudalism into a late-capitalist world of migrant workers exploited by a conspicuously hedonistic elite.
Ferocity is to the fore in South African choreographer Dada Masilo’s Giselle. “I’d always been intrigued by the Wilis. I wanted to make them dangerous and scary,” says Masilo, whose previous works include reinventions of classics such as Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet and Carmen. “They’re supposed to be vicious, wronged spirits that kill, but you don’t really see that in the ballet version because it’s so graceful and pretty and pure and white.”
Clothed in full, blood-red skirts and moving with a “staccato, into-the-ground” physicality derived from the complex rhythms of traditional South African dance, Masilo’s mixed-gender Wilis skew the original vision of jilted, wraithlike femininity. “I wanted to break the stereotype that only women get hurt. Men get hurt too.”
The work’s androgynous aesthetic is further embodied in the figure of Myrtha, leader of the Wilis. Instead of an imperious queen, Masilo’s Myrtha is a traditional healer who makes sure Albrecht – Giselle’s already-betrothed aristocratic sweetheart who’s been posing as a peasant – dances to his death. In the ballet, it’s Giselle’s blundering suitor Hilarion who jigs himself to oblivion, while Giselle persuades her spectral sisters to have mercy on the guilt-stricken Albrecht. There’s no such clemency from Masilo. Her Giselle shares the anger of her ghostly cohort.
“I don’t think Albrecht deserves to be forgiven,” she says. “What he does to Giselle is appalling. I think we live in a world where women are expected to be understanding, forgiving, innocent and loving. I didn’t want to do that.” She’s not promoting an eye-for-an-eye ethos but rather following the narrative with an insistence on equality. “We need to stand our ground and say it’s not OK.”
In the wake of #MeToo, have audiences responded positively to this reconstruction? “A lot of men don’t like the fact that I kill off Albrecht. It seems like it’s directed at them but it’s not. A lot of the women are going ‘yeah, women power!’ but that’s not really why I did it.”
Masilo is determined to make a social point when it comes to the protagonist’s breakdown. This Giselle is shunned by her community. “In Johannesburg – not just there of course – people are afraid of what they don’t understand. If somebody is mentally ill, people will tend to shy away from them. Look at what has happened with HIV and Aids. People aren’t educated about the disease and they reject the person who’s ill. There’s that stigma.” She drew on a personal experience to shape Giselle’s solitary grief. “My aunt – I always say she died of heartbreak, but she had Aids and my family alienated her because they were ashamed.”
It’s easy to be cynical about the classic’s storybook quaintness, but it can still surprise and challenge, with its famous ‘mad scene’ a real test of a ballerina’s acting abilities, especially to post-Freudian eyes. In recent years, the giddy speed and unnerving intensity of Natalia Osipova’s dancing in Act 1 suggests that her Giselle is untethered to reality from the beginning. Even within the confines of the choreographic text and traditional narrative there’s space for subtle shading.
In order to capture Giselle’s ethereal drift in Act 2, Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Momoko Hirata imagines “walking on something very fragile”, using very worn-in pointe shoes. Even with abundant technique at their fingertips, today’s dancers might still struggle to embody what’s perceived as an authentic Romantic softness. “To get the old-fashioned angle of the neck right … I’m still searching for that,” says Hirata.
Beyond individual artistry on stage, Giselle is a story that resonates for many. It’s about love, madness, social transgression and heartbreak. For Royal Ballet principal Marianela Nuñez, “it’s about so many things that are part of our lives, things that we all get to experience in life. The story will always touch your soul.”
Perhaps it reminds us that it’s not just supernatural stories that provide a chill of the unfathomable. It’s located within and without, in the vagaries of our hearts and minds or the profound unknowability of another person. That said, there’s nothing quite like sitting in the dark to watch a pack of professional Wilis in lovely, lethal action.