Ballet in the Romantic Period

The Romantic Period began in the early nineteenth century and reflected the romantic ideas of art and literature of that time. Following the Classical Period, ballet became a marriage of dynamic technique and dramatic storytelling. This was the birth of the story ballet. The Romantic Era was a time of fantasy, etherealism, supernaturalism and exoticism. The stories of the time dealt with issues of good vs. evil, man vs. nature and society vs. the supernatural. Women became the superstars of the ballet with the introduction of pointework, a style of dancing on the tip of the toes which gave the illusion of floating. With women being centerstage, men took the role of supporting the ballerina. Important ballerinas of this era include Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Lucille Grahn and Fanny Ceritto. Popular ballets of the romantic period include La Sylphide, Giselle, and Coppelia.

With their themes of love, loss, and yearning for spiritual transcendence — not to mention their iconic white-tulle costumes — La Sylphide and Giselle have come to define Romantic-era ballet. Nearly two centuries since their Paris premieres — Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide in 1832 and Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot’s Giselle in 1841, essentially bookending ballet’s Romantic period and coinciding with the Early Romantic period in music — they still capture our imaginations and break our hearts.

Giselle and La Sylphide define Romantic ballet for modern audiences. Yet they represent only two of the many ballets created between 1830 and 1845, the period’s traditional range; new story ballets were choreographed and performed all over Europe, typically telling tales of adventure, historical events, young love, and the lifestyles of the rising bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, Giselle and La Sylphide beautifully illustrate how the earthbound materials and mechanical technologies of the period captured and embodied the Romantic zeitgeist. And examining the materials and musical instruments of the era yields marvelous insights into how ballets were performed and what experiencing them may have been like for audiences of the time.

The costumes from Act II of Giselle provide an archetypal example. Act II takes place in a dark forest in Germany, where the Wilis, the spirits of young maidens who were betrayed by men and died before they could marry, rise after dark to hunt down and kill any men foolish enough to venture into the forest at night. Giselle and her Wili sisters wear skirts of wafting white tulle, which create an airy, hovering effect as they dance and a spectral translucence that is enhanced by gloomy stage lighting. Emblematic of Romantic-era aesthetics and staged essentially the same way today, the scene embodies the era’s emphasis on folk beliefs, spirituality, connection to nature, longing, and sorrow, along with a touch of Gothic-revival horror.

Those evocative skirts actually made their ballet debut a decade earlier, at the Académie Royale de Musique (aka the Opéra de Paris) in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1831 opera Robert le diable. In Act III, the questing knight Robert visits the ruins of a cloister at night. The spirits of deceased nuns, portrayed by corps de ballet dancers wearing tulle skirts and illuminated by innovative gaslights (in one of their first uses onstage), rise from their graves to tempt and taunt him. They caused a sensation among theatergoers, apparently because of their spectacular eeriness as well as the revelation of their silhouetted legs through the illuminated semi-opaque fabric.

It was a turn-of-the-19th-century invention of the 19th century that tulle could be produced efficiently and affordably enough for large-scale theatrical use. Before then, tulle lace was hand woven on bobbins, a laborious and time-consuming process that made the fabric precious and extremely costly. Today’s costumers use 25 to 30 yards of tulle to make a single Romantic-style tutu, so an Act II cast that includes Giselle, Myrtha the Queen of the Wilis, and a corps of, say, 24 Wilis, would require 650 to 780 yards — even if the costumes for the original production of Giselle were made with, say, half as many layers, they would require far more fabric than could be made by hand on short order, much less at a reasonable cost. But in 1808 John Heathcoat invented the bobbinet machine, which could turn out net fabric much more quickly than human hands. Technical improvements over the following two decades enabled larger-scale production in time for Romantic costumers to devise the era’s signature look.

Nascent pointe technique contributed to the magical effects of both ballets as well. While today’s pointe shoes are made with rigid shanks and hard, blocked toe boxes that provide strong support for dancing on tiptoe, no such shoe technology existed in 1832, when La Sylphide premiered in Paris with principal dancer Marie Taglioni in the lead. Taglioni wore the typical ballet slippers of the era, crafted from soft satin with semi-stiff full leather soles, and simply darned around the sides and tips to create a bit of padding for her toes. Her brief poses on pointe emphasized the ethereal quality of the title character, an alluring, winged sprite who tempts a young Scotsman named James away from his betrothed, Effie, on the eve of their wedding.

E. A. Théleur’s 1831 Letters on Dancing, depicts women posing on the tips of their toes in soft shoes, and several books outline exercises for developing the strength of the insteps to enable tiptoe movements. Earlier toe dancing on stage essentially comprised virtuosic tricks meant to dazzle the audience; what made Taglioni’s pointe work in La Sylphide groundbreaking was that it was utilized to express the essence of the Sylph’s character rather than simply to dazzle the eye. In 1841, the Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi would employ similar pointe work as the first-ever Giselle, to the same effect.

Ballet music was evolving as well, with Early Romantic composers beginning to write original scores for ballets rather than simply repurposing familiar airs from operas. The music is so evocative and colorful that today that it is sometimes performed in instrumental concert settings that are devoid of dancers; musicians and audiences are simply left to imagine how dance might enhance the experience and expression of the music. Student musicians sometimes learn famous Early Romantic pieces without even realizing that they are based on dance forms. But it is entirely possible to gain a sense of the utterly sensate, dynamic collaboration between musicians and dancers of the early 19th century by plumbing a treasure trove of historical materials.

The Early Romantic soundscape was created by instruments that were constructed differently, and sounded different, from those commonly in use in today’s ballet orchestras. Modern innovations in strong bow design weren’t yet standardized; overall, bows of the period tended to be more flexible and articulate than today’s bows. Until around World War I, strings were made of cleaned, dried, and stretched sheep gut (or metal wound around that material); gut strings are typically more supple and responsive than modern metal strings. Wind-instrument builders began to experiment with bore size and shape, or the number and function of keys. Design experiments for horns, such as the addition of valves, were just beginning. The gorgeous balance of these wind and string instruments produced a brilliant variety of tone color, and the versatility of a true Early Romantic instrument ensemble complements the dramatic qualities of dance in different ways than an orchestra playing the same score on modern instruments is able to do.

We can also draw on abundant collections of original music manuscripts that reveal the kinesthetic relationship between dancers and musicians. Specific examples of stenography from the era show us exactly how the dance and the music align: Here, a popular opera or concert piece might be repurposed as a pivotal moment in a story ballet; there, a familiar (and difficult!) etude for solo violin becomes a warm-up exercise in a ballet class. By playing the original music for dancers familiar with early 19th-century ballet technique, we can see how a dance class was structured, follow the sequence of the dancer’s training regime, and envision how professional dancers moved across the stage to the music. A living line between the music and the dance is drawn before our eyes.

Adding to the rich store of manuscripts are scholarly, well-researched personal histories of the era’s famous dancers, choreographers, and musicians. The ballet master again provides a helpful example. From the 15th century well into the 19th century, the dance master was a musician, or at least a violinist of sufficient skill to accompany the class exercises and presided over the juncture of music and dance at court and in the theater. Arthur Saint-Léon exemplified this type of multi-talented professional. A virtuoso violinist, celebrated ballet dancer and choreographer, and eventually the dance master for the Imperial Russian Ballet, he was celebrated throughout Europe. In a scene from his 1849 ballet Le Violon du Diable (The devil’s violin) — a two-act Faustian tale of a violinist who sells his soul, with an original score by Cesare Pugni — Saint-Léon danced the lead role, partnering his then-wife, the famous ballerina Fanny Cerrito, and played the violin. It is a shame that so little of Saint-Léon’s oeuvre survives — a pas de six from the 1844 one-act romance La Vivandière and the libretto for the 1870 full-length comedy Coppélia — as his mastery of the performing arts of his time was so thorough.

Although we live in very different times, both culturally and technologically, with such a rich historical legacy in materials and research at our fingertips, we can summon the look, sound, emotional qualities, and underlying beliefs of Romantic-era ballet performance. Exploring the context in which the ballets arose offers insight into their complexity, and helps us question contemporary assumptions about the choreography, librettos, and music that have survived. By pairing imagination with historical awareness, we can rediscover the experiential aspects of dance and music and gain insight into these arts as we practice them today.


Theophile Gautier was inspired to write Giselle by the first Romantic ballet (La Sylphide), the ideals of the Romantic movement, Victor Hugo’s poem “Fantomes” (about a girl who dances herself to death), and Slavic folklore of the mythological wilis, as written by Heinrich Heine. Gautier worked with librettist Vernoy de Saint-Georges to write the script. Adolphe Adam composed the score, Pierre Luc Charles Ciceri designed the sets, and Jean Coralli choreographed it with Jules Perrot. The star was Italian-trained Carlotta Grisi, who inherited the mantle of Maria Taglioni and became Gautier’s muse. Giselle revolves around madness, waltzing (both associated with women), and an idealized past, set in a medieval village in Rhineland during harvest. It was first performed at the Theatre de l’Academie Royale de Musique in Paris on June 28, 1841. Present-day stagings stem from the revival by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia.


Giselle was first performed at the Ballet du Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique in Paris, France, on 28 June 1841. The libretto was written by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier (inspired by a prose passage about the Wilis in De l’Allemagne by Heinrich Heine and a poem called “Fantômes” in Les Orientales by Victor Hugo), music was composed by Adolphe Adam, dance was choreographed by  Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and it was performed by Ballet du Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique.

This performance was by La Scala Ballet with choreography by Patrice Bart, direction by Alexandre Tarta, and sets and costumes by Angelo Sala. It was performed at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, in 1996.

France and the Origins of Ballet:

The Making of Giselle

La Sylphide and Giselle are bookends. At one end stands early French Romanticism; at the other we find Theophile Gautier (1811-1872), coauthor of Giselle, who inherited and shared the earlier generation’s disenchantment. Younger than his predecessors, Gautier had been profoundly disillusioned with the 1830 Revolution: Louis-Philippe’s reign seemed to him a fatal descent into bourgeois mediocrity. More­ over, like them, Gautier was drawn to dreams, fantasy (often erotic), and the supernatural. According to his daughter, “he saw himself as a man surrounded by mysterious forces and currents.” His own some­ times outrageous writings and sartorial statements, his flights of pas­sion, and his interest in spirits, ghosts, and otherworldly experiences signaled a rebellious and persistent malaise. Upon his death, Flaubert commented that Gautier had “died of disgust for modern life.”

Gautier and Heinrich Heine were friends and the two men found common cause in their longing for an art that would be openly sensual, femi­nine, and luxurious. “The beautiful is the absence of the common­ place,” Gautier wrote to Heine in the early 1830s. “I dream of an elegant, aristocratic and scintillating literature.” Ballet became a life­-long obsession, and Maria Taglioni’s La Sylphide seemed to Gautier a perfect expression of poetic longing and his own fantastic states of mind. It was, he said, the story of the artist in search of an unattainable ideal. To him, Taglioni  ranked among “the greatest poets of our time”­ – a weighty responsibility, for in Gautier’s lexicon, poets were  not merely writers but spiritual and emotional beacons. Giselle (1841) would be Gautier’s tribute to Romanticism, inspired by Heine and famous French writer Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and the memory of La Sylphide.

Gautier first came upon the idea for Giselle while reading Hugo’s poem “Fantomes,” about a beautiful Spanish girl who dances herself co death. To this, he added the  image evoked  by Heine  of the Slavic wili or “night dancer,” a young woman who dies before her wedding day and  rises (like the disaffected  nuns of Saint Rosalie) from her grave at night to seduce unwitting male victims, whom she compels co dance to their deaths. Heine called wilis “dead bacchantes” and imag­ined them “dressed in their wedding gowns . . . with glittering rings on their fingers”; they reminded him of the intoxicating “longing for sweet  sensuous oblivion” he had observed in Parisian women as they threw themselves with “fury” and “madness” into dancing at a ball.

What is a wili? Gautier and de Saint-Georges based their story on myths of the Wilis as vengeful spirits or faeries waiting to lure the unwary to a watery doom, but the tales are age-old and may have lost a little something over the centuries. According to Barbara G. Walker in The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, a Wili or Vila is a “Slavic witch-spirit associated with water; cognate of the Scandinavian Vala or Valkyrie.” Walker also notes that “Sometimes, especially favored men were invited to join the Vilas for a while, usually seven years. A man would be invited into a cave or hollow tree, and find himself in fairyland. Russian Vilas were sometimes known as Rusalki [singular, Rusalka], daughters of Holy Mother Russia (Earth). Like Valkyries, the Vilas of old had charge of the rites of death and the guiding of souls . . Vilas or Wilis came to be feared as angry, dangerous ‘souls of drowned women’ who dwelt in water, perhaps because so many ‘witches’ were drowned. Like Sirens, they were supposed to draw into the waters any heedless wayfarer who happened to see them dance by moonlight… [T]he old fear of them resides in such phrases as ‘it gives me the willies.’ A cold shudder was said to be a prophetic touch from a Wili’s deathly hand. However, traces of the priestesses’ former benevolence are found in the legend that where they danced on the nights of the old pagan festivals, there the grass grew thicker and the wheat flourished more abundantly.”
 Gautier cook these images and, working with the librettist Vernoy de Saine-Georges, came up with a script. The ballet was set to a sweetly melodic, programmatic score by the composer Adolphe Adam, and the production was once more designed by Pierre Luc Charles Ciceri. For the choreography, the Opera turned to its resident artist, Jean Coralli, an Italian by birth who had spent much of his career on the Austro-ltalian circuit and in the Parisian boulevard theaters but who had been handpicked by director Louis-Désiré Veron in 1831 to revitalize choreography at the Opera. Coralli, how ever, did not accomplish the dances for Giselle on his own: he had con­siderable help from the dancer and ballet master Jules Perrot.

Perrot was another boulevard dancer. The son of Lyon silkworkers, he began his career as a clown and gymnast. He was ugly, awkward, and athletic-a “gnome-like” creature, a “zephyr with the wings of g. bat.” He was a natural virtuoso and had studied ballet with Auguste Vestris, who warned him to keep moving fast to hide his physical defects. He made his debut at the Opera in 1830 to impressive acclaim, especially considering the sour response of audiences to male dancers at the time, but like Taglioni he soon left to embark on an international career. In Italy he met the young La Scala­ trained dancer Carlotta Grisi. Grisi, a simple girl from a small Istrian village, was a significant talent. She had some of Taglioni’s natural physical luminosity, and Perrot immediately took her on and began to work with her. His own transparently athletic style made its mark on her technique: her dancing, as one critic put it, was “less Grecian” than Taglioni’s and had a more “muscular grace.” Perrot was Grisi’s teacher but also her dance partner and lover, and the two lived, trav­eled, and performed together. When they arrived in Paris she became the star of Gautier’s Giselle.

La Sylphide and Giselle were the first modern ballets: we feel we know them because they are still performed, although in much-changed ver­sions, but there is more to it than that. The French Romantics invented ballet as we know it today: they broke the hold on dance of words, pantomime, and the story ballet and completely shifted the axis of the art – it was no longer about men, power, and aristocratic manners; classical gods and heroic deeds; or even quaint village events and ad­ ventures. Instead, it was an art of women devoted to charting the misty inner worlds of dreams and the imagination.

Pantomime was not gone. To the contrary, it continued to thrive, and both La Sylphide and Giselle told a story and featured substantial mime sequences (many of which have been cut or dropped today).But telling and pantomime were no longer the primary point – no one seemed to care that Taglioni was an undistinguished actress. Rather, the idea was to use movement, gesture, and music to capture an evanescent memory or fleeting thought-to give concrete physical and theatrical form to the “invisible nations” and immaterial stuff of the mind. Thus for the first time since the seventeenth century, the steps, poses, and movements of ballet had acquired a new intrinsic meaning. As Gautier himself so aptly put it, “the real, unique and eternal theme for ballet is the dance itself.”

This had nothing to do with expressing human motives or inner dilemmas, which is why La Sylphide and Giselle were never quite tragedies: their characters are cardboard  and there is no moral dilemma at issue. Rather, these ballets turned away from classical literary models; they were visual poems or living dreams. La Sylphide in particular had achieved something quite extraordinary. Chateaubriand, Gautier, Janin, and the women who identified so strongly with Taglioni saw her dancing through the lens of their own discontentment. It was a win­dow into a “truer” feminine and emotional world, an art form imbued with a fragile idealism so poignant that it seemed to them to express the mal du siecle they identified with modern life. The connection to Taglioni felt personal and intimate, but it was also cultural and metaphorical. La Sylphide expressed a yearning to rise to an idealized, otherworldly state, but its existence was illusory and impermanent­ the ballerina, like the sylphide [sylph], was mortal. There was a strain of utopi­anism in this: La Sylphide and Giselle held out the alluring “if only” promise of a balletic Elysian paradise of happiness and true love. But the point, of course, was the impossibility of ever getting there. What mattered for the French Romantics was the aestheticized sense of loss-the intense feeling of yearning.

With La Sylphide and Giselle the mold for modern ballet was thus set: the ballerina was the undisputed protagonist of the art and male dancers – disparaged and ignoble – were banned from  the  French stage or relegated to weak, supporting roles. The pull between a cen­tral woman (supported by a large and sympathetic corps de ballet) and her lover, between the demands of the community and the secret de­ sires of the individual, would structure ballet for over a century to come. None of this made the art any less classical or formal; if any­thing, Taglioni deepened ballet’s attention to line and symme­try, striving for simplicity and perfection “in the ancient manner.” But she also expanded ballet’s expressive range, incorporating into her own elegant style the jumps, pointe work, and extreme positions pio­neered by Vestris and the Italian dancers-steps and movements we recognize as fundamental to ballet today. Indeed, it was not the smoothness of her dancing – or the sweetness in those lithographs­ that made Taglioni so effective. It was the tension beneath the surface, the unlikely redistribution of weight, line, proportion, which made her appear at once balanced and pulled in opposing directions. Ambi­guity was implicit to her art: she was at once “the old misguided taste” (Victor Hugo) and its refutation.

Romantic Illusions and the Rise of the Ballerina:

The Plot of Giselle

The central axis of Giselle lay in three related Romantic obses­sions – madness, the waltz, and an idealized Christian and medieval past. The first act takes place in a “peasant valley” in a medieval Ger­man town where Giselle, a young village girl, has fallen in love with Albrecht, an old-world duke who poses as a villager in order to woo her. Giselle’s mother, however, senses trouble: her daughter’s gay and impulsive waltzing reminds her of the legendary ill-fated wilis. Hi­larion, a real villager who also loves Giselle, plots to reveal Albrecht’s true identity, and in due course the ruse is exposed: Giselle learns that Albrecht is actually betrothed to Bathilde, a glamorous woman of his own social rank. Devastated at his callous betrayal of their amorous vows, Giselle slowly, painfully, step by step, and in full view of the en­tire village, loses her mind. At the height of her frenzy, she grabs Albrecht’s sword and kills herself.

Up to this point everything is very real, if romantically expressed: Giselle’s love, betrayal, anger, and suicidal grief are painted in clear, clean strokes. But in the second act, all clarity disappears and we are plunged into a strange and ghostly fantasy, a misty world of intense memories and unbearable regrets. The action takes place at night in a chilly and humid moonlit forest, covered with “rushes, reeds, clumps of wild flowers and aquatic plants.” In the undergrowth, there is a white marble cross and tombstone inscribed with Giselle’s name. Myrtha, “a pale and transparent shade” and the queen of the wilis, appears and touches the flowers with her magic rosemary branch: they open and wilis rise out of them and flit, sylphlike-like, from tree to branch. The wilis gather around their queen, and  each performs a dance as if she were once again a young bride at a ball: there are Ori­ental and Indian dances, “bizarre” French minuets, and trance­-inducing German waltzes. Finally, Myrtha halts the fantastical ball and prepares for Giselle’s arrival.

Giselle emerges from her tomb wrapped in a shroud. When Myrtha touches her with her branch, the shroud falls away and wings sprout on her back as she rises, skimming the ground with newfound free­dom. Albrecht, disheveled and nearly crazed with grief, arrives in search of her grave and sees his beloved. He attempts to catch her, but she melts away and glides between his fingers, all ephemera and chimera. Grisi’s dance combined classical Sylphidelike steps with spe­cial effects: rigged to machines with pulleys and wheels, she whizzed through the air and across the floor with amazing speed. (A  stunt dancer initially performed these tricks to test the equipment.) Ex­hausted and frustrated with his senseless pursuit of this specter, Albrecht sinks down behind Giselle’s tomb.

Hilarion  appears  and  becomes  the  wilis’  first victim. Albrecht watches as these “ogresses of the  waltz” (Gautier) force the terrified boy into a frenetic and dizzying dance, whirling him from one wili to the  next until he reaches the edge of the  lake and finally, still spin­ning, plunges into the watery abyss. Albrecht is next, but Giselle re­mains loyal and tries to save him by guiding him to the cross on her tombstone, which will protect him from the wilis’ devilish powers. Myrtha, however, has no compassion, and she forces Giselle to seduce Albrecht away from the cross with a voluptuous dance. He succumbs, and they join in a  “rapid, airborne, frenetic”  dance of exaltation and exhaustion, pausing only to fall half conscious into each other’s arms. In the end, however, Albrecht is not saved by religion, supernatural forces, or his own (weak) will: it is the breaking dawn that sends the wilis “staggering” back into the trees and flowers from whence they came. As Giselle sinks back into her flower-bed grave.

However, she makes the final sacrifice: she points to Bathilde, who has approached with her retinue, and begs Albrecht to  marry her. Frustrated,Albrecht watches Giselle disappear into the earth and grabs to his heart the flowers that have engulfed her. He then turns and reaches out to the regal but forgiving Bathilde.

The story was hardly new to  the stage. It recalled Robert le Diable and La Sylphide, of course, but also the wilis in the ballet La Pille de l‘air (1837), which played  at a popular Parisian  boulevard  theater. Just a few years earlier, Taglioni herself had danced La Fille du Danube, also drawn from a Germanic  legend, about  a young girl who  throws  her­ self into the Danube  rather  than  marry a man she doesn’t  love.  The man she does love dances with her ghost, and  commits suicide  himself to join her, submerged, for a watery pas de deux. Then there were the contemporary madwomen: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) (after a novel by Sir Walter Scott); Nina, ou la Jolie par amour, first per­ formed in the 1820s and revived in 1840; the haunted sleepwalkers in Bellini’s La Sonnambula (1831); and others.

Madness and waltzing  were widely associated with women. Insanity in women – men were apparently afflicted for different  reasons – was often thought to be a quasi-sexual disease owed to menstruation and hormonal irregularities that weakened women and made them danger­ously receptive to overpowering feelings. Women were thought to waltz and commit suicide for the  same reasons that they read  novels and were more adept than men at  spinning lies (and acting). To Gau­tier and many French Romantics, however, this surfeit of emotion, whatever its cause, was no shortcoming. On the contrary, women had special access to poetry, beauty, and the much-coveted mysteries of the imagination.

Like Chateaubriand, Gautier had his own phantom or sylphide: he fell in  love with his first Giselle, Carlotta Grisi. And although Grisi, who had broken with Perrot, rebuffed Gautier and married a Polish nobleman instead, she never entirely  left  Gautier’s  mind.  He  wrote her sentimental and  nostalgic  letters  and  made  pilgrimages  to  visit her for the rest of his life. She was, he confided, “the true, the only love of my heart.” After Giselle, he wrote another ballet for her, La Peri, in which she appeared as an oriental  fairy in  an opium dream; she was also the inspiration for several poems and for the  fantastical  story Spirite (1866), about a young  man haunted by  the  spirit and ghost of a girl who dies of unrequited love. In the story, her phantom spirit fol­lows  him  everywhere;  he tries to  capture  her but  she eludes  him. When he dies she lifts his spirit up to hers and flies away with it; to­gether they form the image of an angel. In real life, however, Gautier adopted a more pragmatic stance: he married Carlotta’s sister, the temperamental but solidly bourgeois Ernesta Grisi, with whom he had two children.

Cast of Characters




She’s the village belle, newly crowned the Harvest Queen, and beloved by all for her sweet nature and ebullience. She loves to dance, but her heart is weak – it will ultimately kill her when she’s reeling from the shock of discovering her lover is not what he seems. Fragile as she is in life, in death she reveals a new strength as she protects her lover from the wilis, and achieves a tender and luminous forgiveness. The great ballerinas have interpreted Giselle in many different ways, some emphasising her flightiness and delicacy, some her womanly gentleness. Here’s a fascinating article contrasting two interpretations, with video examples.

Albrecht / “Loys”



These are the facts: the restless duke Albrecht disguises himself as a peasant and insinuates himself into Giselle’s heart, all the time knowing that he’s betrothed to a noblewoman and it can only end in tears. But does he act in the heedless fervour of true love, unable to tear himself away, or is he just a heartless cad slumming it with a pretty peasant girl? Both interpretations are valid. Whichever way it’s played, in Act II we see an Albrecht truly repentant, and changed forever by his experience with Giselle’s loving ghost.




Oh Hilarion – the saddest of ballet’s second-string men. Consumed by unrequited love for Giselle, jealous of the handsome stranger, he unmasks Albrecht and then has to watch his beloved die from the shock. Oh, and he gets danced to death by ghosts when he tries to visit her tomb. Would Giselle have saved him if she’d been out of her grave when he arrived? We’d like to think so.
Hilarion, too, can be played in different ways – as an uncouth, kind-of-scary stalker, or as a good guy who genuinely loves Giselle.




The role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is an absolute gift to a ballerina – regal, frozen, and yet alive with malice, Myrtha is scary as hell as she heads her band of vengeful undead maidens. On an emotional level, perhaps Myrtha is supposed to show us the monsters we turn into when we can’t forgive or forget – when we abandon mercy.


Giselle’s mother, Berthe, is very protective of her daughter, as Giselle has a weak heart that leaves her in delicate health. She discourages a relationship between Giselle and Loys, thinking Hilarion would be a better match, and disapproves of Giselle’s fondness for dancing, due to the strain on her heart.

Marta Romagna as Bathilde, Svetlana Zakharova as Giselle, Friedemann Vogel as Albrecht

Bathilde is Albrecht’s betrothed. She and her entourage are welcomed in Giselle’s village as the follow Albrecht’s hunting party. Bathilde is charmed by Giselle, and gifts her a necklace as a token of her appreciation for the hospitality. Bathilde is noble yet kind. At the end of the ballet, she forgives Albrecht’s betrayal and welcomes him back into her arms.



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