In celebration of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s upcoming production of Giselle — a graveyard full of factoids about this great Romantic ballet.
The original production of “Giselle” was staged in 1841 at the Paris Opera, choreographed by Jean Coralli (then ballet master of the company) and Jules Perrot, set to music by Adolphe Adam. The title role was created for Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi (1819-1899), who danced it on the June 28 opening night.
A ghostly plot
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At first called “Giselle ou les Wilis” (“Giselle, or The Wilis”), the ballet tells the story of an innocent peasant girl driven mad by romantic deceit. After her death, she is transported to a moonlit glade haunted by Wilis — the vengeful ghosts of young women who died before their wedding night. The story was inspired by two sources: a Victor Hugo poem about a girl whose love for dancing caused her death, and a passage about the Wilis (a Slavic legend) in a Heinrich Heine work.
A ‘blanc’ slate
The wispy, white-clad Wilis are part of a tradition of ballet-blancs, or white ballet, performed by an all-female corps de ballet and popular in the 19th-century romantic era. The first white ballet was a chorus of dead nuns (!) in the opera “Robert le Diable” (1831); other examples are the wood nymphs in “La Sylphide,” the underworld specters of “La Bayadere,” the Wilis and the swans of “Swan Lake.”
A Russian revision
Though the original Paris staging was very popular and traveled across Europe and to Boston and New York in the 1840s, it was only performed until 1868. Marius Petipa restaged “Giselle” in the late 19th and earlier 20th century for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg; most productions since then have been based on Petipa’s version.
The dance historian Cyril Beaumont, in his book “The Ballet Called Giselle” (published in 1945), wrote “ ‘Giselle’ is a period piece in which theme, setting, music and choreography all belong to the romantic era. Any attempt to transplant it into another period, to modernize it, to smarten it up with bright patches of colour typical of sets for present-day revues, is to invite disaster.” Nonetheless, the ballet has occasionally been transformed: Dance Theatre of Harlem, for example, staged a Creole version of “Giselle” that kept the 1840s time period but changed the setting to a Louisiana plantation; and Mats Ek, of Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, created a modern version in which Act II took place in a mental institution.
One for the history books
PNB’s version is unlike any other: In 2011, PNB artistic director Peter Boal and dance historians Doug Fullington and Marian Smith created a new-yet-old “Giselle,” based on historical sources ——including notes believed to be taken by ballet master Henri Justament at the Paris Opera in the 1860s and an annotated 1842 music manuscript.
That 2011 staging used borrowed costumes and sets; this time, PNB’s “Giselle” will be newly designed. Jérôme Kaplan, whose work has been seen at PNB in “Roméo et Juliette” and “Don Quixote” has created costumes and sets inspired by 1840s design — notably, on early sketches of the first “Giselle” at the Paris Opera.
Setting the stage
Seven carpenters and 11 scenic artists have been working on the “Giselle” sets for PNB since October. Their materials have included over 4,000 square yards of muslin and over 150 gallons of paint.
What a Wili wears
Each performance uses 82 costumes, all of which were constructed at PNB’s costume shop. They include 800 yards of ribbon trim, 900 hand-sewn buttons, 13 top hats, and 550 yards of tulle — the latter only including the Act I women’s skirts. Each Wili in Act II wears a six-layered skirt (four layers of tulle, two of silk), with each layer approximately 14.5 yards in circumference. For 19 Wilis, that’s 1,653 yards of fabric — the equivalent of nearly 14 football fields.
A double take
Giselle’s costume is modeled specifically on the one worn by Carlotta Grisi on that 1841 opening night. It’s two costumes, but one design: The Act II version is the same dress, rendered in all-white.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org