Alexandra

Question #3: How does Giselle die?

36 posts in this topic

Or, how should Giselle die? Suicide? Shock? Broken heart? Heart attack? All of the above?

[ 04-16-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Somebody asked this of a Royal Ballet ballerina some years ago; which one - my memory fails me. She said, "Oh, she stabs herself, and whatever else, that's how the church views her - a suicide. That's why she's buried out in the middle of nowhere instead of in the churchyard." Under the theology then prevailing, a pretty convincing point!

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I think the suicide makes more sense, at least to me, but I read an interview with 5 or so SFB principals who dance the role, and one of them--either Tan or LeBlanc--said that her Giselle wouldn't have died from a stab wound if not for her broken heart, and vice versa.

[ 04-15-2001: Message edited by: BalletNut ]

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I think the suicide theory makes the most THEOLOGOCAL sense - otherwise Giselle would have been buried in the churchyard and wouldn't have become a Wili. On the other hand, much is made of her "weak" heart, and when you see the full mime of the Gisele's mother, it is clear that the wilis are girls who died of broken hearts (presumably because they were betrayed by men). Most productions have Hilarion pull the sword away from Giselle before she has a chance to stab herself. If she DOESN'T stab herself, then there's no reason for her to buried in the middle of the woods. Would there be wilis in holy ground??? Any Catholic theologians or experts in myths in the group?

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Although Théophile Gautier who has co-written the libretto, makes it clear that she dies of suicide ("Chez les femmes, la raison est dans le coeur"... :P), I think it makes more dramatic sense if she dies from a broken heart. The latter fits more in the Romantic image and it doesn't make much sense that Giselle's mother reminds her of her weak heart if she will die by the sword anyhow.

In any case, it's out of the question that if Giselle dies from suicide she is buried in sacred ground. But the forest is not convincing either, as in some productions there seems to be a whole collection of graves in the forest: cemetery in the forest, or... ?

Another question, if Giselle indeed dies of suicide and is not supposed to be buried in sacred ground, why is her grave so elaborately built ? And why does it take Hilarion and Albrecht so long to visit the grave ?

[ 04-16-2001: Message edited by: Marc Haegeman ]

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Giselle's grave isn't always such an elaborate affair - sometimes it's depicted as quite a rustic marker. However, if it is a showy tomb, maybe Albrecht commissioned it? (a later thought: if she's depicted as really really nice, maybe BATHILDE commissioned it?) And for all we know, Hilarion has been there every day since she was interred, maybe even any free time he has. Anti-clericalism was a good part of the freethinking of the 1840s, if not the atheism of the 1790s. Giselle's tomb, cut off from the rest of the world, is a sign of the cruelty of the church authorities in not letting her be buried in consecrated ground. However, God is demonstrated to be superior to the earthly authorities, and takes Giselle to heaven in the end for her acts of forgiveness and mercy.

Religious canons of the Roman Catholic church in the 1840s held that a suicide was guilty of murder, and usually died before confession could be made and was therefore unabsolved of that sin. Today, the view is that anyone who intentionally kills her/himself is de facto insane, i.e. suffering from a disease, and death as a result of a disease is not, of course, a sin.

[ 04-21-2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

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I read, in Ivor Guest's book on Giselle, I think, that originally in France she did stab herself, like Marc says. Then when Giselle went to Russia, she wasn't allowed to kill herself on stage due to religious proscriptions. To me it makes more sense for her to kill herself and be buried in unconsecrated ground, because the wilis are afraid of the cross. They wouldn't be running around in a Christian burial ground. But then there is Giselle's mother's concern about her dancing with a weak heart. Maybe her weak heart helps her mind to unhinge and then she stabs herself.

Lovely though the ABT second act sets are, I think they are stronger on atmosphere than dramatic sence, because it is clearly set in an old graveyard with lots of crosses and a ruined church. Again, not the place where ghosts who are powerless in the face of Christianity would dance.

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I have a copy of Alex Gard's "More Ballet Laughs" and there is a great cartoon depicting a production of "Giselle" for the Marquis de Cuevas' Company---Ballet International. Vera Nemtchinova (the Giselle) is being coached by Boris Romanoff, Anatole Obukhoff and Anton Dolin on the proper way to stab herself with the sword. So, it would seem to me, that these three august teachers agree it was suicide!

On the question of the burial site...if, indeed, Giselle is really "out-of-her-mind" at the time of her demise---she can be buried in the Churchyard.

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Mel, I believe that Royal ballerina you are referring to, but whose name you had forgotten, must be Beryl Grey. She used a sword to kill herself. I must say that suited her well, Beryl Grey was a very tall, broad shouldered ballerina and if she had died from weak heart or nervous exhaustion it would have seemed very ridiculous indeed.

She was, in my opinion, a very fine dramatic Giselle, although Beriosova was always my favorite. She was also tall, but seemed more frail and she did not use the sword.

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Giselle knew she had a weak heart and that dancing endangered her health. Hence, since she danced herself to death, she counts in the suicide category. It's a borderline call in today's society -- kind of like consigning a drunk driver who hits a tree to hell as a suicide. But I suspect in prior centuries they didn't look kindly on people whose character flaws or mental illnesses led to their own deaths. I always thought the rest of the Wili corps were in a kind of purgatory -- they died abruptly, hence unconfessed, but still they were virtuous gals for the most part.

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In the two major productions of Giselle that I have seen, I never got the impression that Giselle actually killed herself with Albrecht's sword. She plays with it menacingly (while insanity fully replaces her broken-hearted remembrances), but to kill herself with such a long sword would have been obvious, and I don't recall that at all. I remember that Irma Nioradze, as Giselle, swung the sword in large circles along the ground (not in the air) before finally dying.

On another point brought up here, It doesn't seem completely unthinkable that the Wilis could be "associated with", "hanging out at", or um..."living" in a graveyard, one where Christian graves are almost all topped with crosses. Heinrich Heine's concept of the Wili does not appear to imply that these poor maidens were sinners and condemned to be buried apart from other Christian church-goers. That has been mentioned here, but where did that idea come from? They are clearly pitiable maidens who, like Giselle, probably died of broken hearts. Wouldn't they likely be buried in the church graveyard? The traditional place for "ghosts" is certainly the graveyard, eg. when you were a child (or perhaps even now) did you not "whistle by the graveyard" to keep the ghosts of the dead buried there from intercepting you unexpectedly as you walked past? The placing of the Wilis in the forest is confusing, to be sure. This does take place is Germany, notable for its great forests close upon its towns! Perhaps this is a more interesting place to dance in the moonlight than around the gravestones.

Also, are the Wilis generally portrayed as spirits with a desire to capture, through dancing to death, those (particularly young men) who happen to encounter them in their nightly release? That seems an obvious follow-on to their deprivation in life. This was clearly the implication in the Kirov production as well as the Hartford production I saw. Are they not somewhat like Yeats's Sidhe, "...if any gaze on our rushing band, We come between him and the deed of his hand, We come between him and the hope of his heart...." So their objective is not simply to dance....

Actually, during the performances I was blithely unaware of these subtleties, its usually only when I read this board that I wonder that I may have missed something. Is it possible the original creators Gautier et. al. didn't really think through all the details completely?

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Gautier et al. probably didn't think through all of the details, but the problem is also that we don't really see what they were thinking about, or intended. Giselle has been handed down and altered.

Peter Wright made it clear during a masterclass that he saw two different things in Giselle picking up the sword: a death symbol and a phallic symbol. First she is fascinated and describes a circle with it, then it seems as if the sword is attacking her, making serpentine movements with it and fascination turns into terror.

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I think the significance of the crucifix might be that it is Giselle's grave. In other words, maybe only Giselle (and her cross) can protect Albrecht.

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Good point, CygneDanois. It's not just the cross marking the grave. Giselle also forms a protective cross with her body (pose with arms outstretched), shielding Albrecht from Myrta. The final time that she does this, the distant church bells are heard, signaling the dawn...the light. I see a tremendous amount of Christian symbolism in this ballet. It was all the more obvious to me this past Easter Sunday (ABT's 'Giselle' in Washington, DC), that this ballet is about Resurrection-and-Forgiveness, in Christian terms.

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Yes, Jeannie, I absolutely agree with you. For me this place (when Giselle shields me with her stratched arms staying on her own grave) was the turning point of Alberth's story. I saw suddenly the light of the love and I understand that I forgiven. The music changed the rhythm, like the time stops and we have a wonderful adagio were we belong to each other and evem Willis can't separate us.

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A little remembrance here of field trips past: Once I took a bunch of students and parents to a matinée of Giselle, and the Giselle was Eleanor d'Antuono, much discussed in an earlier thread on "house ballerinas".

As Giselle was placed back on the knoll surrounding her grave, the ABT production then had her reappear about halfway up leg #2, and gesture to Albrecht. My students were extremely puzzled by this, until the (formerly unwilling attendee) 13-year-old brother of one of them caught it. He gasped, "Omigod, she's going to Heaven!" in a voice loud enough where those around us went, "Ooooohhh!" instead of "Shhhhh!"

I made to look over approvingly at the wisdom of the observation, but all I saw were a group of young teens, including one 13-year-old would-be tough guy, suffused in tears! :P

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I'm currently reading Marian Smith's new translation of the original published libretto (which she gives both in original French and English translation), and see that Giselle does not stab herself: "... [Giselle] is about to let herself fall on its [the sword's] sharp point, when her mother hurries toward her and grabs it away." Giselle continues her mad dance and then dies: "So many sudden sorrows, so many cruel blows, together with this latest effort, have finally exhausted her dwindling resources ... Life seems to abandon her ... her mother takes her in her arms ... A last sigh escapes from the heart of poor Giselle ... She glances sadly at Albrecht in despair, [italicized from hereon] and her eyes close forever! Bathilde, kind and generous, melts in tears ..."

The libretto is very rich in detail and very illuminating.

[ 04-21-2001: Message edited by: doug ]

[ 04-21-2001: Message edited by: doug ]

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Thanks for the quotes, Doug. It's very interesting to note that Théophile Gautier's "Les Beautés de l'Opéra de Paris" from 1844 is already different in many points from the libretto.

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Cyril W. Beaumont's "Complete Book of the Ballets" also has a libretto (although he never lists his sources) which states, as does the Gautier Marc mentions, that she kills herself with the sword -- Albrecht tries to get it from her, but it's too late.

I don't know whether this is the way it worked in Paris (although I would imagine it is) but in Copenhagen, the libretto was something that you had to submit to the Theater's censor before a ballet went into production. The stage action often differed.

I have a very clear memory of reading that the suicide death was deemed necessary for Grisi because she wasn't a strong enough actress to carry off a mad scene and a les concrete death, but when Fanny Elssler got the role she, in effect, said, "La Elssler does not need a sword to die!" and, voila!, we have the mad scene we all know and love today. This would match the inconsistencies in the libretti -- the original, nonsuicide one submitted to the Theater and the slightly later one that matched the stage action.

I have found nothing in the few sources I have at home that say anything about Giselle's grave and why it's in the forest -- perhaps this has been merely an assumption (that suicides can't be buried in the churchyard). If she had died unshriven, she'd also be kept out of the churchyard. The Beaumont libretto talks about a beautiful marble tomb (now, where Giselle's mother have come up with the money for that?)

Perhaps this was not an issue in 1841, but the audience accepted a forest tomb, as they accepted Albrecht's house?

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That's a silly detail, but if Giselle kills herself with the sword, why isn't there any blood on her costume? :confused: And as Marc wrote, why would her mother have reminded her of her weak heart if it she was to die from something else?

There is an interesting issue of "L'avant-scene ballet-danse" ("L'avant-scene" used to publish issues about theater, opera and dance but they published only a few issues about dance) dating back from the early 80s with quite a lot of information about Giselle. I think that it included at least some part of Gautier's scenario- but unfortunately my copy is at my parent's house, several hundred kilometers away...

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In the RB's version, she certainly gets blood on her hands - but it's imaginary blood, this being a romantic ballet! There was a production a few years ago when 'real' blood appeared but I can't remember whose it was (the production, not the blood!)

According to Markova, who's danced more Giselles than most, she does stab herself but not badly enough to kill her, as her mother snatches the sword away before she can really hurt herself. Then she dies of 'shock and anguish'. (Was it Pavlova, by the way, who had a scar from where she'd stabbed herself too realistically?)

[ 04-22-2001: Message edited by: Jane Simpson ]

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I don't know if this is the one you saw or not, Jane, but Peter Schaufuss's production has real blood.

Part of the mad scene has some mime which could be interpreted as Giselle seeing the blood run down her arms, OR that she is getting cold and the life is ebbing out of her. I'd never read of the half-suicide, half-nonsuicide before -- thanks for that, Jane. I think often changes are made by dancers who are merely seeking to make sense out of a particular role, make the scenario work for them.

[ 04-22-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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In Russian villages cemeteries are usually in the forest outside of town, not where the church is. May be, when Giselle "moved" to Russia the graveyard moved to forest as well? :eek:

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Sounds plausible to me :P We have some cemeteries that are between a forest (or at least, clump of trees) and the churchyard, so maybe it's betwixt and between.

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Originally posted by Marc Haegeman:

Thanks for the quotes, Doug. It's very interesting to note that Théophile Gautier's "Les Beautés de l'Opéra de Paris" from 1844 is already different in many points from the libretto.

I've managed to browse through a copy of the issue of "L'avant-scère Ballet-Danse" that I mentioned in an earlier post (by the way, if some people are interested, there is an available copy at the Librairie Théâtrale in Paris, near the Opéra Comique- and I even saw the POB premier danseur Jérémie Bélingard there ;) ), and it includes the full original libretto by Théophile Gautier and Vernoy de Saint-Georges, and also some comments about the differences between that original libretto and Gautier's 1844 text. In the original libretto, as Doug wrote, Giselle did not kill herself, while in Gautier's later text, she does (it's like what Alexandra wrote about the Beaumont text: Albrecht tries to take the sword, but it's too late).

There is no explanation about the reason why the grave is in the forest...

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