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Giselle as a vampire


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#1 John-Michael

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Posted 28 June 2003 - 08:01 PM

This is a slightly bizarro question but has anyone noted the similarity between vampires and wilis? Giselle possibly commits suicide and becomes a wili, the wilis are afraid of the cross over Giselle's grave and rise from tombs at night, and sort of drain the life force from people. I'm just wondering if there's any folkloric conncection between vampires and wilis and if anyone might know if there have been any articles or productions of Giselle that have commented on any such connection? I'm sure the similarities are tenuous at best but it's one that's intrigued me for years and I've never seen it mentioned in any of the ballet or vampire books that I've read. Despite the sweetness of the music, libretto, and dancing, I've always thought that there is a strong hint of the ghoulish and sinister in the ballet that seems to go unnoticed.

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 28 June 2003 - 09:30 PM

I think that's a good point -- in the 19th century, I'm sure it didn't go unnoticed, although the stage picture was probably pretty rather than ghoulish. As you probably know, there were dozens and dozens of 19th century ballets with different fairy folk as its heroines -- peris, fairies, naiads, dryads, wilis, sylphs -- all different, though we don't "see" that and sometimes use the terms interchangeably for "otherworldly creature." (Not to mention the gnomes, trolls, brownies, elves and leprechauns. Those forests were rich in folklife.)

#3 Mel Johnson

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Posted 29 June 2003 - 01:18 AM

Part of Giselle is based on Heinrich Heine's De L'Allemagne in which the Wilis are described as "a species of vampire; the undead spirits of maidens who have perished before their wedding days...."

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 29 June 2003 - 06:57 AM

It's just that they don't suck blood and don't have a neck fetish.

#5 carabosse

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Posted 15 July 2003 - 09:34 AM

I've seen wilis described as vampires in several synopsis.

There is a history of "Giselle" on BalletMet's website, at http://www.balletmet...es/Giselle.html.

Included is a discussion of the origin of the word "wili" and their appearance in several cultures:

"Meyer's Konverationslexikon defines Wiles or Wilis as female vampires, the spirits of betrothed girls who are jilted before their wedding night. According to Heine wilis came from a Slav legend of maidens who are engaged to be married but die before their wedding. They are unable to rest in their graves because they could not satisfy their passion for dancing when they were alive. They therefore gather on the highway at midnight to lure young men and dance them to their death. There is a Slave word 'vila' which means vampire. The plural is vile, and wilis is probably a Germanic pronunciation of that word as a 'w' in German is pronounced like a 'v'. (Puccini's first opera is based on the same legend, in Italian Le Villi.) In Serbia they were maidens cursed by God; in Bulgaria they were known as samovily, girls who died before they were baptized; and in Poland they are beautiful young girls floating in the air atoning for frivolous past lives."

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 15 July 2003 - 09:56 AM

Thanks for finding that for us, Carabosse. I'm especially grateful for the first line:

[quote]Meyer's Konverationslexikon defines Wiles or Wilis as female vampires, the spirits of betrothed girls who are jilted before their wedding night.[quote]

Several friends and I had a conversation about the jilted requirement for Wilidom a few months ago. All of us remembered that Wilis were jilted, but none of us could find that in any of the libretti we had, nor in Beaumont.

#7 grace

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Posted 15 July 2003 - 03:26 PM

a strong hint of the ghoulish and sinister in the ballet that seems to go unnoticed.

i don't think it goes un-noticed in GOOD productions...although i agree that it IS sometimes played right down, in others.

#8 Mashinka

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Posted 17 July 2003 - 02:20 AM

Several friends and I had a conversation about the jilted requirement for Wilidom a few months ago.  All of us remembered that Wilis were jilted, but none of us could find that in any of the libretti we had, nor in Beaumont.

That seems to be the case. A favourite source of Giselle information is The Romantic Ballet as seen by Theophile Gautier translated by Cyril Beaumont. The book contains a lengthy letter written by Gautier to Heinrich Heine outlining his creation of Giselle. Wilis are the ghosts of dead dancers with no mention of marital status or lack of it. They may however be suicides as Giselles mother mimes: <You will dance forever, you will kill yourself, and, when you are dead, you will become a Wili >

Gautier's original idea for the first act of Giselle was a great ballroom, proving a magnet for the dance-loving Wilis. Their Queen touches the dance floor with her magic wand to inspire the guests with an insatiable desire to dance and at the end of the evening the Queen of the Wili's, invisible to everyone, would have singled out Giselle and "laid her icy hand on her heart".

Needless to say, Gautier later had second thoughts.

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 17 July 2003 - 02:29 AM

Just so long as she isn't an UMpire; they can be really mean. :innocent:

#10 R S Edgecombe

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Posted 17 July 2003 - 04:18 AM

Mashinka, in her extremely useful book, Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), Marian Smith argues that vestiges of Gautier's original ballroom plan (i.e. a divertissement of national dances) can be found in the valse of the wilis. There is an obvious touch of the fandango in the passage that accompanies the pirouettes renversees (could somebody please tell me if they're done by Moyna or Zulma?--I always forget), and a (less convincing) touch of orientalism in the F minor oboe melody with acciaccature the follows immediately after it

#11 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 17 July 2003 - 06:06 AM

But Mel, think of the possibilities! "Giselle in the Strike Zone"!!!! :innocent:

#12 Mikhail

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Posted 17 July 2003 - 06:30 AM

Dear colleagues,
I have something to add about wilis, their habits, temper, kind of life, etc. Unfortunately I have no time now as I go to St.Petersburg in a few hours to enrich my Moscow impressions on the Royal Ballet. Thus, I will post the next week.

Being pressed I would like to attract you attention to the question which, for the best of my knowledge, was never discussed in literature: "By which means the wilis affect men"? Evidently, not physically, as they are bodiless spirits, almost transparent. For the prove it is enough to recall the famous episode from "Giselle": the troops of wilis move through each other in sautes en arabesque. So they influence men psychologically. Hillarion was not thrown to the lake, he fall himself being charmed and emaciated.

Then what did their unhappy victims feel? What did happen in brains of Hillarion and Albert? The answer can be found in the 4th book about Harry Potter "The Goblet of Fire". Namely, in a chapter where Ireland and Bulgaria play the match at the World Championship of Quidditch, this favorite game of wizards and witches. Our heroes are fans of Ireland and decorated themselves by the symbols of the country. Before the match about hundred "veela" appeared on a field to support Bulgaria. And look what happened then:


Veela were women… the most beautiful women Harry had ever seen… except that they weren't - they couldn't be - human. This puzzled Harry for a moment while he tried to guess what exactly they could be; what could make their skin shine moon-bright like that, or their white-gold hair fan out behind them without wind… but then the music started and Harry stoped worrying about them not being human - in fact, he stopped worrying about anything at all.

The veela started to dance, and Harry's mind had gone completely and blissfully blank. All that mattered in the world was that he kept watching the veela, because if they stopped dancing, terrible things would happen…

And as the veela danced faster and faster, wild, half-formed thoughts started chasing harry's dazed mind. He wanted to do something very impressive, right now. Jumping from the box into the stadium seemed a good idea… but would it be good enough?

"Harry, what are you doing?" said Hermione's voice from a long way off.

The music stopped. Harry blinked. He was standing up, and one of his legs was resting on the wall of the box. Next to him, Ron was frozen in an attitude that looked as though he were about to dive from a springboard.

Angry yells were filling the stadium. The crowd didn't want the veela to go. Harry was with them; he would, of course, be supporting Bulgaria, and he wondered vaguely why he had a large green shamrock pinned to his chest. Ron, meanwhile, was absentmindedly shredding the shamrocks from his hat."


I think we should be grateful to Ms. Rowling for the significant contribution to the Gisellelogy.

#13 Mikhail

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Posted 22 July 2003 - 10:46 PM

Adolphe Adam was born on July 24, 1803, so tomorrow we celebrate his 200-th anniversary. I guess our discussion is just in case. In what follows I use different words to distinguish different creatures: the traditional “wili” and the neologism “veela” invented by Ms. Rowling whose description of veela’s dance I like very much. May be, not invented, may be, Ms. Rowling used some unknown for me sources? I would be glad to any information of this kind.

1. Where did Wilis live?
The text which is quoted so often and which was put as a preface to the original synopsis in the booklet on Giselle of 1841, does not contain the exact indication to the area. The English translation can be found in: Marian Smith. “Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle”, Princeton, 2000; p. 229:
There exists a tradition of the night-dancer, who is known, in Slavic countries, under the name Wili.

Actually the original text by Heinrich Heine from the section “Elementary Spirits” (“Elementargeister”) of his book “On Germany” reads as follows:
In einen Theile Oestereichs gibt es eine Sage, die mit den vorhergehenden eine gewisse Aehnlichtkeit bietet, obgleich sie ursprünglich slavisch ist.


So, Austria is indicated by Heine himself. But is it true? Theophile Gautier mentioned another geographical point in the review article for La Presse of July 5, 1841:
... all those delightful apparitions which you encountered in the Harz mountains and on the banks of the Ilse in the velvety mists of German moonlight…
(English transl. is taken from: I.Guest. “Gautier on Dance”, Dance Books, London, 1986; p. 94).

A small river (rather a brook) Ilse still exists in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, it flows to Oker, and it gave the name to a town Ilsenburg. This is pretty close to the Upper Harz with the famous mountain Brocken. As is known this peak was a favorite place for witches to gather together (see “Faust”, Walpurgisnacht scene, where the name Ilsenstein is also mentioned). So this is quite a proper place for witches, wilis and others from that company to appear. And this is exactly the area Heinrich Heine traveled through in 1820. Saxony accepted Christianity later than other parts of Germany and one believed that pagan traditions and legends have been preserved better there.

On the other hand nobody told that Heine listened and wrote down the legend himself. He widely used tales and legends collected by brothers Grimm and other romantics. In a footnote to the Russian edition of the collection of his works it was said that a rhyme by Theresa von Artner could serve as a source for the Heine’s story about the wilis. This rhyme was published in the “Pocket Almanac on the Native History” and was called “The Dance of Wilis. Folk Slavonic Tradition”. Unfortunately, no exact reference was given.

2. Teutonic Wili vs. Slavic Veela

Cyril Beaumont made a statement in “The Ballet Called Giselle” (I used a reprint – Dance Books, London, 1996; p. 19):
That the legend is of Slavonic origin is doubtless correct, for there is a Slav word vila, meaning a vampire, the plural is vile
And further:
Most dictionaries and works of reference are silent on the subject of the Wilis, but Meyer’s Konversationslexikon defines the Wiles or Wilis as a species of vampire consisting of the spirits of betrothed girls who have died as a result of their being jilted by faithless lovers.

It is worth mentioning that Gautier himself used once the word vampire describing “Giselle”. Namely, when Berthe tried to stop Giselle from dancing, she told her:
“You will become a vampire of the dance!” (“Tu sera un vampire de la danse!”)
– T.Gautier. “Notices sur Giselle”, Les Beautes de l”Opera, Paris, 1845; p. 10. But the word “veela” does not mean “vampire”.

Yuri Slonimsky (“Giselle”, Academia, 1926; p. 11 – in Russian) quoted a footnote from a Russian translation of the synopsis published in St.Petersburg in 1857:
This tradition is taken from a Slavic, or more precise, Serbian myth about celestial creatures called Veely [Russian plural from Veela – M.]. The main difference in their temper is that Serbian Veely are pure creatures primary spiritual. In contrast, German Wilis are metamorphosed creatures: they were brides and became sepulchral toilers of dance. Serbian veely are not wick, they punish men only for evil actions and more often for a presumption and a pride. They do this with comprehension and dignity as it becomes creatures of higher reason to behave. They are also passionate to dance. To send whirling a show-off hunter or an overbearing knight is more than a delight for them.


Serge Lifar knew the difference between a Slavic veela and a Teutonic wili quite well. He discussed the question in: “Giselle. Apotheose du ballet romantique”, Paris, Albin Michel, 1942; pp. 117-118 (sorry, I do not know if the English translation exists). He also stressed that there were different local versions of the tradition about the phantoms who killed by dance. Veela was never a woman, she is a metaphysic not metamorphosed creature. Veely do not attack poor peasants, they represent a kind of an immanent justice materialized by the folk imagination. Lifar told that the Slavic tradition penetrated Germany where romantics transformed it into a melodramatic story. He mentioned also that exactly the same tradition exists in old Breton tales. In Russian folklore veely do not exist. Lifar saw some traces of the tradition in a story “Vij” by Gogol, but the phonetic resemblance of “vij” and “veela” is not convincing, in my opinion. The origins of the words are different, not saying about the difference of the tempers of these personages. Etymological dictionary tells that in the southern branch of Slavic languages “veela” means “a sorceress” and probably the word is connected also with old Icelandic “veidr” (to hunt, to chase) and with similar root words in Lithuanian.

Modern encyclopedias of myths and mythology defines a veela as a kind of a nymph: charming beautiful young girl – tall and slender, with long flowing hairs and sometimes with wings. They could fly like birds, or they walk like light shades. They wear long white dresses, sometimes with a gold belt or a gold crown. They are strongly connected to water which makes them close to mermaids. Normally they are friendly to people, especially to men: they help them, often they fall in love with them. A veela can even marry a men and have children from him. But soon or later she leaves her husband and children to be back to veela’s community. In some versions of the legend one has to take her clothes (or the wings) and then the veela becomes a normal woman and stays at home. This plot is developed in some Russian fairytales although the word veela is not used. Interesting to note that in Russian tales the attempt of a husband to keep his charmed wife (say, by burning up her dress or wings) leads just to the opposite result: she leaves immediately blaming him for the impatience and not trusting her.

Veely appear at nights, at dawns or sunsets, they like either full moon or, just the opposite, they prefer a new moon. They can be born from an early-dew or from a grass or a flower. Sometimes a small beautiful girl could be transformed into a veela. That is a metamorphose is allowed also in some special cases. A special feature of veely is their musicality: they permanently gather to sing and dance in a ring. If we read Gautier’s description of the second act, we notice immediately that his Teutonic wilis appear from flowers, water lilacs, grass and trees. Thus, they are rather nymphs (driads, water-nymphs, etc.) in this episode than the dead women.

Sorry for this more scientific than poetic descriptions.

#14 Mel Johnson

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Posted 23 July 2003 - 02:27 AM

Mikhail, don't apologize! :blink:

That was a splendid job of cultural anthropology, particularly in terms of the Linguistics. Bravo! :innocent:


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