Libretto: Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges & Théophile Gautier
Direction & choreography: Akram Khan
Company: English National Ballet
Reviewer: Lynda Woodroffe
Many traditional ballets and fairy tales tell a story similar to that of Giselle. She is a peasant girl who meets Albrecht, an aristocrat, while he is out hunting. They flirt and fall in love. Neither are free for a relationship, Giselle being wooed by Hilarion, a gamekeeper, and Albrecht engaged to Bathilde, a woman of his own class and culture. Upon finding this out, Giselle is inconsolable and dances wildly with grief. She is already weakened by heart failure, and her grief and dancing results in her death.
In the forest where she grew up live a group of supernatural women called the Willis; young broken-hearted women who were abandoned by their fiancés before they were married. They take the spirits of other broken-hearted women from their graves and into their group. They haunt the heart-breakers and dance them to death. Weeping at her grave, Hilarion is trapped by the Willis and dances to exhaustion. They then drown him in a lake. While spotting Albrecht also grieving at Giselle’s grave they turn on him too, but Giselle resists becoming a Willi and saves him.
In this all-too-familiar story, a woman is punished for her love. The same can be said of Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake, with women in these stories being at the behest of the men. This is in contradiction to the dancing roles, where the ballerina is nearly always the most impressive dancer while the men tend to take on a less important, supportive role, displaying their athleticism and power to woo and overcome a passive woman.
Giselle is a classical ballet, but Akram Khan, a contemporary ballet choreographer, sets his production in a garment factory, staffed by migrants, of which Giselle is one. They all lose their jobs, leaving them destitute. Khan does not use the prescribed choreography and music of the classical version but creates beauty in the characterisation of fear, distress and protection, in his production showing the menace of the Willis, who form a ghost factory, and the ominous sounds of horns, drums and the stamping of sticks to warn of approaching danger. In October 2019, Dada Masilo from South Africa choreographed another version of Giselle at Sadler’s Wells. In an interview she says that women today are still marginalised, and people who are dependent on and who want to please their parents. Her depiction of this is through the character of Giselle. Through the actions of the Willis – who, she says, are not people but spirits – Masilo displays the power of their anger, underlining her statement that women have an angry spirit.
All versions express a tale of distress and emotional pain. Giselle and Albrecht responded to their ids – the primitive instincts of sexuality and impulses, and the need for rapid gratification regardless of the consequences, relating to Freud’s Pleasure Principle (Freud, 1920). While Albrecht and Giselle give in to their fantasies, the ego searches for a solution, and tests a reality in order to control their desires. Albrecht was able to do this, but Giselle, who not only had a weakened heart but also a weakened ego, failed to control her impulses, which led to her death. The superego originates from the environmental conditions of the unconscious. Giselle came from a peasant background and was aware of her narrow life demands. She denied herself the messages from her superego, Hilarion and her mother, and went with her heart. Albrecht, meanwhile listened to his superego and the authority figures in his life. These dictated his best odds – stay with what you know, and bear the grief of loss it engenders.
And what of the Willis? They were the shadows, in the Jungian sense of the word, of deserted young women. But instead of representing the true characters of the affected women they became evil and wreaked revenge, off-loading their evil wishes onto the perpetrators of pain.
Jung says of this, that: ‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected’ (Jung, 1938).
The Willis were indeed conscious of their vendetta against men who they considered heartless, but they had no intention of correcting this. However, Giselle is able to defeat their powers and save Albrecht.
Ballet is about controlling one’s body, creating precision, uniformity, and, at the same time, expressing all human emotions through body language, but the tales presented to us about women who lose their minds seem to me to be contrary to the art. Strong is the woman who can express her feelings without shame, but in most cases, the authors of the ballet stories cause her to fall, which is an anathema in ballet.
The brain washing that most of us, including Giselle, experience is reflected in the writings of Susie Orbach. In Hunger Strike, a book about anorexia, Orbach mentions the difficulties that girls still face, like Giselle, while growing into women: “For a young woman today, developing femininity successfully requires meeting three basic demands. The first of these is that she must defer to others, the second that she must anticipate and meet the needs of others, and the third, that she must seek self-definition through connection with another. The consequences of these requirements frequently mean that in denying themselves, women are unable to develop an authentic sense of their needs or a feeling of entitlement for their desires.” (Orbach, 2001).
Giselle’s story is set in early 19th century France, when women from lowly backgrounds had few or no rights, low expectations of life, and would most likely be dependent upon their spouse. Her parents were important and to disobey her mother would have been very stressful, but Giselle chose to do so. In Masilo’s ballet, the angry mother abandoned her disobedient daughter. Giselle perished in a state of helplessness and hysteria after the abandonment by both her lover, Albrecht, and her mother.
From this ballet, we get mixed messages – is it nobler to go with your heart? What is the cost of this? Should we stay safely within our cultural boundaries or venture outwards? And are these messages relevant for today? Giselle is not just a story about idealised love, social class and of the danger of crossing class boundaries. It is a story about the oppression of a group of people – women – and the characteristics of their oppression, something we might have hoped would by now be consigned to the past. Sadly, it is still the case that, despite all that we have achieved, women are still struggling to be rewarded in the workplace, are expected give in to pressures to conform, are being attacked for being women, and abused in multiple areas of life, with the home being one of the most dangerous. The ballet Giselle tells the story of a woman who is a rebel in the face of conformity, characterised by a combination of frailty, anger, authenticity and naïveté which sadly result in her downfall.
Lynda Woodroffe is a retired Integrative Therapist whose practice was based in North
Danse Danse. (2018). Dada Masilo: Giselle. YouTube video. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtB6nNdWR8I
Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. London: The International Psychoanalytical Press
Orbach, S. (2001). Hunger Strike: Starving Amidst Plenty. London: Other Press. London.
Jung, C. (1938) Psychology and Religion. In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West And East. p.131. Available at: http://jungcurrents.com [Accessed on 25 July 2019]
English National Ballet. (2019). Akram Khan’s Version of Giselle. Available at: https://giselle.ballet.org.uk/the-story [Accessed on 25 July 2019]
Wallin, D. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy. London: Guilford Press
Image: ‘Ballet’ by LILIUMNERO (Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 licence via Flickr.com)