first performed on 28 June 1841, one of the foundations of the romantic
tradition in ballet. The music by Adolphe Adam
(1803-1856, his best-known work) was specially written for it, instead of being a hash of popular tunes, the practice until then. He was also one of the first to use leitmotiv
s for characters.
Giselle is a peasant maiden. Prince Albrecht comes to her village and falls for her; he woos her in disguise, though he is engaged to another. Giselle loves him, but another villager, Hilarion, who is also in love with her, discovers the prince's identity and jealously reveals it. This causes Giselle to die of a broken heart.
In the second act Giselle is being initiated into the Wilis, the restless spirits of brides who were jilted by their lovers and died before their wedding night. They trap any man who comes into their domain and cause him to dance himself to death. This fate befalls Hilarion. Then the Queen of the Wilis sees Albrecht, who had been watching, and orders him to die in the same way. But the love between Giselle and Albrecht is so strong that he is saved. She returns to live as a Wili forever.
Giselle, ou Les Wilis was conceived by the poet and critic Théophile Gautier after reading a passage in Heine about the German legend (based on Slavic vampire tales) of the Wilis. He enlisted the help of the writer the Marquis de Saint-Georges, the composer Adam, and the ballet teacher Jules Perrot. Both Gautier and Perrot loved Carlotta Grisi, one of the new star dancers of the age, and Giselle was Grisi's first full-length vehicle in Paris. The part of Albert (as Albrecht was originally known) was taken by Lucien Petipa (brother of the choreographer Marius Petipa).
The original choreography is not well preserved. Modern productions are generally based on versions Marius Petipa created in Russia between 1850 and 1910, in which year Vaslav Nijinsky danced Albrecht, with Tamara Karsavina as Giselle. The following year he was dismissed for trying to wear obscene costume in it: what is now the standard figure-hugging male tights, without further covering.
A controversial new choreography by Sylvie Guillem is now doing the rounds of Europe. She has dispensed with a lot of what she sees as unhelpful accumulated tradition and tried to bring the source to life, using a modern Kosovo setting and giving more character to the individuals in the corps de ballet.
Giselle has always been one of the most beautiful and popular of ballets. More detail about its history can be found at
The wili is a borrowing of the Slavonic vila spirit; they appear as quidditch cheerleaders for Bulgaria in one of the Harry Potter books.