First, this post is about the ballet, Giselle, not the supermodel. Second, I can’t believe I forgot to mention Giselle in the context of the 1840s!
Let me start by saying that I love Giselle. It’s a beautiful ballet. But, I love Giselle the same way I love foie gras: it’s something of a forbidden pleasure, with much aesthetic (or culinary) merits. I would hate to eat/watch/perform it everyday because of its rich depth, and when I do experience it I feel a bit guilty and confused about the whole thing.
Though the score, costumes, and choreography don’t help, it has something to do with the plot: peasant girl, ditched by aristocrat dies of heartbreak and becomes a ‘wili,’ the ghost of a dead virgin bride. In the end she proves the worthiness of her lower class love, by 1. dying for the Duke 2. saving him from the vengeful wraith of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Honestly, when I’m not in the mindset of the Romantic Ballet and at a safe distance from its siren-y luring, I would let the Duke die. It would make an example to the rest of the Dukes who get it in their head to mess around with peasant girls. But, hey, that would take all that lovely whistfulness from the White Ballet of the Willis.
I am squeezing some ballet history into my blog on Historical Costuming. But, as they say, an argument has legs so long as you are capable of describing them. And here are its turned-out legs:
Before the development of recordable motion, such as in movies, we had no way to keep track of how people moved in the past (and, yes, they moved differently as clothes, aesthetics, and social class demanded). In ballet, we have a living history of the aesthetics of motion, as the discipline has kept alive old technique rather faithfully in the form of choreography and passed it down from generation to generation of dancers. Though fashions may change the quality of movement of the romantic ‘white ballets’ – such as with Balanchine’s broken wrists or higher, flashier extensions – the choreography has amazingly survived remarkably unscaithed.
But (now I get to the fun part) what have changed the most since the premiere of Giselle in 1841, are the clothes and the fashionable female silhouette that affected the clothes. Ballet provides an excellent example of fashion, clothes, and technology, influencing the aesthetics of movement, and all historical costumers can learn from it. If you an historical costumer has followed all the directions and created a viable recreation but it ‘doesn’t feel or move right,’ perhaps you need to adjust how you move to have the sensory aspects fall into place.
There have been two very noticeable changes in fashion and technology that have adjusted the performance of the choreographies of the ‘white ballets’: point shoes, and (more important for my blog) the lack of corsets. I am assuming that many of my readers are not former ballet dancers, and likely will not understand the subtle changes in pointe shoe technology. In a nutshell, the point shoes of Carlotta Grisi were little more than reinforced slippers. All steps she did en pointe were controlled by the strength of her legs and feet only, making the modern “roll through” very difficult.
But the removal of the corset from the equation of ballet transformed the art, and it was a shift that occurred in the twentieth century. If you are curious to know what effect the corset (or more accurately, its removal) had on ballet, try one sometime. Dancing Giselle choreography in a 19th century corset is a whole new experience, where the dynamics of the pelvis are drastically changed. Whatever you thought of the difficulty of the White Ballets, with their wilting uninspiring scores, staid costumes, long-held panches, and the required self-less expressions, the corset will indeed make the whole thing a new experience.
Now that I have provided evidence that corsets, ballet, and historical costuming are all very good companions, let me move on to explain how Giselle was further proof that the 1840s were a lousy decade. First of all, there is the subject matter. The heroine’s progression is something like this: modest happiness with her suitor, then frantic sadness resulting from her suitors rejection and denial, and finally, selfless oblivion when she becomes the lost soul of a dead virgin bride in a white sea of lost souls of dead virgin brides. And the most fun those dead virgin brides get to have comes from the passive power of rejection: when a mortal man enters their haunted forest, they have the power to reject his pleas for his life while their Queen makes him dance to death.
And the male role is just as dissatisfying. Our Duke is not admirable or likable, being a powerless, hopeless, and passive fop, like a fat pet bunny rabbit trapped in the snares of his class. The audience is meant to forgive him for meddling with the heart of a peasant girl – while he was in disguise – and then marrying another woman because – get this – he was good enough to place flowers on Giselle’s grave. That’s pretty depressing.
Although La Sylphide (1832?) predated it, it was Giselle that put the genre on the map. It institutionalized pointe dancing, taking it from a base, weird trick to the heights of feminine artistry. It was heralded as the best ballet ever. Where ballet in the past had been more of a formless frivolous endeavor, Giselle gave it’s plotline a copyable code. Many companies feel compelled to re-translate Giselle (the same as with Beowulf). I believe its the irreconcilable, hero-less ending that makes it such a great canvas for reinterpretation. It was another one of those innovations that sprung from the problematic 1840s, and one that is still alive and practiced to this day.
There are plenty of videos on Youtube of the Giselle Ballet. Watching them is akin to watching a cultural reenactment, and it can be very exciting. Even if you are not a die-hard ballet fan, have a look at when Giselle saves her lover from the vindictive Wili Queen and see 1840s courtship aesthetics come to life. If you watch the video, remember that Giselle and all the ladies in white are supposed to be dead.
The ‘White Ballet’ was alive and well in the age of the bustle. Here is La Bayadere (1877), where the ‘wilis’ become ‘shades’ and the heroine uses props (a veil) to dance with her thwarted lover in the afterlife. The plot is modernized. The heroine, an Indian Priestess (adding an exotic element), is poisoned by a rival (instead of dying from grief), and then her lover during an opium binge, dreams of her shade and them living happily together (instead of placing flowers on her grave and meeting her ghost). When the hero marries the rival, the displeased Gods destroy the temple, killing all of its inhabitants. The plot is far more satisfying and the choreography arguably better.
The comparison of the two ballets proves that the aesthetics of the 1840s were downright self-punishing. Giselle is far more famous than La Bayadere, and likely because it grabs a hold of that subconscious death wish, feeds it, strokes it, tenderizes it, and bestows upon it a noble-seeming purpose.
I could run with this theme, but I have a paper to do. Enough procrastinating.