Glancing at Giselle – A Historical Look at the Ballet

Tonight and tomorrow brings a highlight of the spring season at The Smith Center when resident company Nevada Ballet Theatre (NBT) presents Giselle – one of the most beloved works ever choreographed – on our Reynolds Hall stage. We asked James Canfield, NBT’s artistic director, for a look back at the rich history of Giselle and a preview of the company’s upcoming production.

What is the origin of “Giselle”?

Giselle hails from classical ballet’s “Romantic Era” that joined the roster of ballets known as “Ballet Blanc” (also known as the great white ballets) such as Les Sylphides, La Sylphide and Swan Lake. The term “Ballet Blanc” or white ballet refers to ballets inspired by the 19th century romantic style and is often considered the pure, classical form of ballet, where the lead ballerina and supporting corps de ballet all wear white. As one of ballet’s most popular works to date,Giselle is one of the oldest classical ballets continually performed by ballet companies around the world.

When was “Giselle” first produced?

Giselle first premiered at the Paris Opera on June 28, 1841 with Italian ballet dancer Carlotta Grisi as Giselle and French ballet dancer Lucien Petipa (brother of Marius Petipa) as Albrecht. Following the premiere, the ballet was staged all over Europe, Russia and the United States.

How does “Giselle” fit within the history of ballet?

Giselle is considered by many to be “the greatest ballet of its time.” It was Cyril Beaumont, an influential English dance writer from the 1920s to the 1950s, who first dubbed Giselle “the Hamlet of dance.” His comparison refers to the difficulties of the role of the ballerina – the fact that she must be both actress and dancer and must change more than her costume between acts.

How has its choreography changed over the years?

Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, the founding fathers of the original choreography, worked with composer Adolfe Adam to bring to the stage Théophile Gautier’s adaptation of the original tale by poet and novelist Henrich Heine. Having gone through several restagings – from memory, notations and eventually video – there remains a basic version from which companies worldwide use as a base and place to begin their choreography. Over the hundreds of years since the premiere, dancers’ abilities have become both artistically and technically more proficient. In addition, the pointe shoe has changed, in turn changing the style and look of the ballet. With that being said, the basic outline and storyline have not been altered in the version we will be presenting in May.

What will define NBT’s upcoming production?

Our dancers and their artistry will define our upcoming production of Giselle.

Are there any elements in NBT’s production that might surprise longtime fans of Giselle?

Yes, one special element will be a surprise and have a newness that enhances the second act. If I were to reveal what that is, it will not be so special.

Anything else you’d like to share?

This ballet exploited advances in pointe shoe work – and those advances, which were innovative and ground breaking during Petipa’s time, have remained in the performing tradition of the ballet ever since. And while the artistry and abilities of the performers have evolved, the original integrity and foundation of this ballet remains. In the end, Giselle has survived over 150 years is because it touches us with its simplicity, poetry and human truth.

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