With ghosts, heartbreak, tragedy and a female heroine at the centre, Giselle was unlike anything that audiences had seen before when it premiered in Paris in 1841, created by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.
Since its premiere, Giselle has been revived numerous times for the Sadler’s Wells stage, with many of ballet’s biggest names performing the coveted title role. In the 1940s, Margot Fonteyn performed Giselle alongside Robert Helpmann as Albrecht (pictured above), and in 1935 the iconic Alicia Markova took to our stage in the role for which she became famous. She named her 1960 biography ‘Giselle and I’.”
This autumn Sadler’s Wells presents three unique interpretations of Giselle. Here’s everything you need to know about how the leading choreographers and dance companies of today are reviving this ballet classic.
With the ambition of working with more contemporary choreographers, English National Ballet’s Artistic Director Tamara Rojo invited Akram Khan to recreate Giselle for the company. In his powerful interpretation, Akram infuses the South Asian style of kathak dance with a contemporary movement language and reimagines Giselle as a migrant garment factory worker separated from a life of hope and security. The set features a towering 20ft wall eerily imprinted with handprints, designed by Academy Award winner Tim Yip.
“Giselle in this interpretation is very strong,” says Akram. “She’s one of those characters who embodies hope even when things are really bad. And that’s why somehow she becomes a leader. That’s what you see in a lot of great leaders. You see that they have this innate ability to tap into hope in the most catastrophic situations.”
Dada Masilo’s trailblazing feminist take on Giselle places the heroine in her native South Africa. Deserted by her lover, Giselle – danced by Dada herself in choreography which uses traditional Tswana dance styles – is guided by a Sangoma, a traditional healer. Dada challenges stereotypical gender roles in her production, casting both men and women as the ‘Wilis’, who in the original story are the spirits of women jilted at the altar on their wedding day. Dada breaks with the traditional all-female corps de ballet in white dresses and makes her Giselle a strong, fierce heroine.
“I think it’s really important to not have women be the victim all the time,” says Dada. “There’s more to women than just being understanding and forgiving and soft and pure. It’s very good to break that stereotype and not put people in boxes. Even when it comes to costumes, I’ve just tried to dress everybody the same.”
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s restaging of Giselle is the most loyal to the original production. It first entered the company’s repertoire in 1999 and was staged by David Bintley and former Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal and teacher Galina Samsova. Unlike the other two, the design and costumes remain true to the original, with the ghostly spirits known as the ‘Wilis’ dressed all in white and sporting hair styles which became popular in the salons of 19th century Paris following the ballet’s premiere. It’s also accompanied by the Adolphe Adam score, played live by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.
“On an emotional level I have always found Giselle to be the most affecting of all classical ballets, and in the 1999 production that Galina and I made, my paramount intention was to provide a setting in which her desperately moving story could be told,” says David Bintley. “Over time all of the ballets comprising the classical canon become subject to the accretions of tradition; I wanted to blow them away and give the dancers a chance to dance and this beautiful, simple, timeless story, a chance to touch people again.”
All three versions of Giselle will be performed at Sadler’s Wells this autumn. For more information and tickets, visit our website.