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Carlotta Grisi as Giselle


A revelation of the heart

The image for this card depicts Carlotta Grisi as Giselle in the original production of 1841.

She is shown hovering between heaven and earth. She has wings but she is not a fairy or an angel, she is sensuous, her arms floating, supple. While she appears to be orientated towards us, she looks beyond us. She is in her own world and, most disconcertingly, she is floating over a grave.

Who is this girl?

Alicia Markova, a famous Giselle herself, writes about watching Olga Spessivtseva and through her interpretation of Giselle, a fourth dimension opening up. What she describes as a revelation of the 'heart' implicit in Romantic Ballet.

We too have had a revelation of the heart, we are in love with Giselle, a ghost who keeps appearing in different forms on what has been an experiment in time travel.

A politics of dancing

What is it about Giselle that means we continue to identify with a heroine who loves to dance?

In our podcast Matthew Hawkins speaking about Giselle moves away from a familiar narrative about dancing and tragedy, or dancing and loss of self, to speak about dancing as something liberating and empowering, a political statement.

For him dance creates an autonomous space, a haven, in which to form an identity that is separate not only from the world outside of dance but also makes a space that is not defined by roles or ideas of success. It is particularly moving that his sentiments are echoed almost word for word in interviews with the students of Herne Bay High.

she's beyond an ordinary life.

Ballerina Natalia Makarova says of the peasant girl she's beyond an ordinary life. Choreographer and dancer Matthew Hawkins telling the story of the ballet from the onstage perspective of a page says 'there must be something very special about this Giselle'.

Violette Verdi, former director of the Paris Opéra and herself a ballerina, says that Giselle is almost two ballets, the key to success in role is in creating the contrast between the two acts.


In the first act Giselle is full of joy and innocence. Hawkins speaks about Lynn Seymour's interpretation of the role and her definition of Giselle as a peasant through a way of standing and walking that, to the aristocratic party that visits her village, would appear as exotic, in his words supercharming.

Lithograph effects

Alicia Markova as Giselle in Act Two

The second act is defined by what Verdi calls Romantic lithograph effects and Giselle is no longer impulsive, however Markova says:

She is a phantom, however, so must show her emotions as distant echoes only of those which belong to life...Giselle's leaps in the second act demand an almost masculine strength which must be totally hidden by the fact of wraith-like ease

Alicia Markova, Giselle and I, pg 56

Cyril Beaumont's translation of the libretto points to another kind of duality. In Act Two it is not just that Giselle is a ghost or that she has become sensuous and seductive but psychologically she must fight her new nature as a Wili; one that would lead her to bewitch Albrecht and dance him to his death.

method Giselle

Many dancers speak about disappearing into the role of Giselle.

Gelsey Kirkland in her autobiography Dancing on my Grave writing about preparing for Giselle says that 'each facet of her psychology had to be forged from a real quality in my own personality....No details were minor in the physicalisation of such a role. It was always a case of life or death.'

Violette Verdi also speaks about the boundaries between stage life and real life, between a fictional role and a dancer's persona, becoming blurred, the title of Alicia Markova's autobiography is Giselle and I.

Fragility, obsession and madness

Hawkins refers to a popular idea about the Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, that one of the reasons she was such a great interpreter of the role was that she, herself, was as fragile as Giselle.

Merle Tankard, explored Spessivtseva's story of obsession and madness alongside her own relationship to ballet in Two Feet, later danced by a ballerina currently considered a great Giselle, Natalia Osipova.

It is notable that Tankard is a veteran of the Pina Bausch company whose works were often created by mining personal stories, often about dancing and performance.

You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.

Lermontov in The Red Shoes

A trope of stories about dance and dancers is that tragedy will be the result of a dancer's internal conflict. Verdi explores how, from the beginning of the ballet, Giselle embodies what she calls 'the classic dancer's conflict', dance versus real life. Verdi points out that Giselle is in love twice, with Albrecht and with dance, and this is enough to tell us that she must die.

This resonates with Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes where the story of being caught between worlds is one that can only end in the heroine's death.

meta Carmen

Théophile Gautier, the author of Giselle's libretto, had visited Spain in the spring of 1841 and wrote his poem 'Carmen' just before he saw Carlotta Grisi dance for the first time (Richard Holmes, introduction to My Fantoms, pg xxi).

Another powerful and complex cinematic telling of the myth of the tragic dancer is found in Carlos Saura's and Antonia Gades flamenco Carmen (1983). In this film the fictional choreographer, Antonio, kills a fictional dancer called Carmen playing Carmen in his rendering of the work. The film becomes even more multi-layered when you discover that Gades cast his own company in the film and they share names with their fictional counterparts.


Contemporary tellings by choreographers and dancers' interpretations of Giselle offer alternative views on her not as a tragic, all forgiving, victim but, on the contrary, someone who sits outside of all systems: of the villagers, the Wilis, of gender and of power.

Alessandra Ferri's luminous Giselle has a core of strength, Vida Midgelow cites Jackey Lansley's 1970s feminist adaptation I Giselle, Butoh artist, Masaki Iwana, restaged Giselle as a kind of liminal body state beyond gender in The Legend of Giselle (1994).

It is Dada Masilo who most recently offers a Giselle who won't be messed with - one whose pussy grabs you back.


We have been lucky to have direct advice on our journey from scholars Marian Smith, Jane Pritchard, Claudia Jeschke, Felicia McCarren and expert artist-writers Matthew Hawkins, Kate Flatt and the choreographer Dada Masilo.

We welcome research and scholarship in sources such as the work of Susan Leigh-Foster that bring to light the way that ballet, like all forms of western culture is haunted by the spectre of slavery and colonialism and what this might mean for how we read Giselle.

We are excited by the recent doctoral research of artist-scholar Rainy Demerson on Dada Masilo's Giselle. We encourage you to explore a new project in development on haunting and horror by one of our dancer-collaborators, Seke Chimutengwende.

Scholarship that has been important to us includes writing by Cyril Beaumont, Ivor Guest and Robert Graves and we flag up Alastair Macaulay's collaborative research project 'Giselle: Questions and Answers' which at time of writing has just come online.

You might want to use our reading list and references as a departure point for your own journey to discover Giselle and perhaps like us enjoy returning to the same question - just what is it about Giselle?

1 Produced by Joseph Wishy and directed by Muriel Balash, presented by Anton Dolin (1982) A Portrait of Giselle 2 McCarren, Felicia (1998) Dance Pathologies: Performance, Poetics, Medicine 3 Kirkland, G. with Lawrence, G. (1986) Dancing On My Grave 4 Kahn, Albert E. (1962) Days with Ulanova 5 Leigh Foster, Susan (2010) Choreographing Empathy 6 D' Lugo, Marvin (1991) The Practice of Seeing : The Films of Carlos Saura 7 Markova, Alicia (1960) Giselle and I 8 Demerson, Rainy (2020) De-colonial Moves: Re-membering Black Women in South African Contemporary Dance 9 Macaulay, Alastair (2002) Giselle and her problems 10 Macaulay, Alastair (2020) Giselle: Questions and Answers 11 Beaumont, Cyril (1944) The Ballet Called Giselle 12 Verdi, V. (1977) Giselle: A Role For A Lifetime 13 Justamant, Henri (facsimile edition by Deutsche Tanzarchiv Köln, 2008) Giselle ou Les Wilis : Facsimile of Henri Justamant's manuscript

Card image: Carlotta Grisi as Giselle | Scan by NYPL / Public domain