Creole Giselle is a version of the ballet Giselle in which the story's events are moved to 1940s Louisiana and given an African-American focus.
For centuries, classical ballet has been seen as an elitist art form and has rarely been identified as a form of dance ordinarily performed by African Americans, or other minorities. In 1988, Frederic Franklin restaged the traditional European Giselle for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. To many, this restaging was seen as inappropriate and inferior to those based on the 1841 original choreographers, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. To others, Creole Giselle was a ground-breaking achievement.
Dance Theatre of Harlem and Arthur Mitchell
The Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969, shortly after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Arthur Mitchell was the first African-American soloist for the New York City Ballet. In 1955, he was chosen by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein to join the company. Mitchell’s career boomed during the pre-civil rights era and set the precedent for African Americans in concert dance, specifically classical ballet. Mitchell and Shook were influenced by the “optimism and idealism of the Civil Rights Era” when they founded the school in the community where Mitchell spent his adolescent years, Harlem, New York. Mitchell’s plan was to give underprivileged children the same opportunities that he had as a teenager. The mission statement of the company is to “present a ballet company of African-American and other racially diverse artists who perform the most demanding repertory at the highest level of quality.” This statement stays true to what Mitchell has done throughout the years, either through touring the company or community outreach.
Frederic Franklin was born in Liverpool, England, in 1914 and at the age of six his mother took him to his first dance class. From an early age, Franklin was noticed for his innate capacity for remembering dance steps. When Franklin moved to Paris, he dabbled in cabaret and then moved to London to continue performing in numerous cabarets and vaudeville with the Vic-Wells Ballet, now known as the Royal Ballet. In 1935, Franklin joined the Markova-Dolin Ballet, and it was through his dancing with this company that he was seen and asked by Léonide Massine to join the new Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Franklin signed a four-year contract with the company, which proved to be the most significant opportunity in his career. In 1952, he founded the Slavenska/Franklin Ballet with Mia Slavenska. After touring Japan and the Philippines, the company folded due to management and financial problems. He returned to the Ballet Russe shortly afterwards and restaged the repertory that had been lost when Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo folded. Through his work with The George Balanchine Foundation, he became the artistic advisor of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Traditional staging of Giselle
The award-winning ballet Giselle was set in the Rhineland of the Middle Ages during the grape harvest. Giselle, a peasant girl, falls in love with her neighbor Loys, the man whom Count Albrecht disguises himself as. A forester, Hilarion, loves Giselle, but she pays him no mind. During Giselle’s celebration of the end of the grape Harvest, Hilarion discovers Loy’s real identity. The Duke of Courland and his daughter, Bathilde, Albrecht’s future wife, arrive and are welcome by the peasants. Hilarion tells Giselle the truth about Loys, just as she is being crowned Queen of the Village. In shock, Giselle tries to kill herself with Albrecht’s sword, but dies from a weak heart. The Wilis are the ghosts of young girls who die before their wedding day, and who avenge themselves by making men who come to their graveyard dance themselves to death. One night, Hilarion visits Giselle’s grave and the Wilis kill him. Albrecht brings lilies to Giselle’s grave and she appears to him. As the Wilis attempt to kill Albrecht, Giselle asks Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, to save him. Albrecht is spared, but Giselle must return to her grave.
Reconstruction of Giselle
The adaptation by the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) of this traditional version of Giselle is very similar to the original, except for a few changes in the storyline and variations in the choreography. The narrative, the choreography, and the music by French composer Adolphe Charles Adam are kept the same as the original Giselle.
Giselle’s character is kept the same; her greatest joy is to dance. Albrecht is now Albert and the Wilis are the ghosts of young girls who adore dancing and die of a broken heart. The ballet is also set in Louisiana during the 1840s. During this time social status among freed blacks was measured by how far removed one’s family was from slavery. In the DTH version, Giselle faces the same social obstacles as did many African Americans in the 1840s. One reason that Giselle cannot marry Albert is because of her social status; her family is not far removed from slavery. In the Creole Giselle, the dancers perform with a sassy attitude characteristic of African Americans in the 1840s and unlike those of the traditional ballet.
They portray an attitude of sophistication and pride for their African-American heritage. Another difference in this version of Giselle is that African Americans are performing the work. Unintentionally, this piece was performed by non-African Americans prior to the reconstruction of the piece. DTH’s version of Giselle consists of an all-African-American cast. Not only is the work performed by an all-African American cast, but the dancers wear costumes similar to the daily dress of African Americans wore during the 1840s, complete with knee-length skirts and shoulder pads.
Influences of Dance World Today
The adaptation of Giselle for the Dance Theatre of Harlem could not have happened at a better time. African Americans in dance were just beginning to emerge and take the world by force. Not only did they break barriers in the dance world; they also did so outside of the dance community. It was not every day that an African American was seen on stage and the fact that they were performing classical work raised a concern in the realm of social status yet again. DTH’s reconstruction of Giselle led to the establishment of interracial companies. Complexions Contemporary Ballet, a contemporary ballet company based in New York, and others like it have used skin color as a choreographic element as well as a sign of equality.
- Gaiser, “Caught Dancing: Hybridity, Stability, and Subversion in Dance Theatre if Harlem’s Creole “Giselle,” 269.
- Schulman, “Dance Diary: The Boundless Dance Theatre of Harlem,” 11.
- Dance Theatre of Harlem: Mission Statement.
- Dorris, “Book Review: The Fascinating Life of Frederic Franklin,” 270.
- Sims, “The Classic,” 55.
Adam. Rudolf Nureyev in Giselle. Kultur, [DVD], 78 minutes, 21 December 2004.
Anderson, Jack. New York Newsletter: Harlem and BRB. Dancing Times, 151, 2000.
Balash, Muriel. Portrait of Giselle. Kultur, [DVD], 98 minutes, 22 October 1991.
Dorris, George. Book Review: The Fascinating Life of Frederic Franklin. Dance Chronicle - Studies in Dance and the Related Arts 31, no. 2: 293-296, 2008.
Gaiser, Carrie. Caught Dancing: Hybridity, Stability, and Subversion in Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole "Giselle". Theatre Journal, 58(2), 269-289, 392, 2001.
Grimm, Thomas. Dance Theatre of Harlem: Creole Giselle. Kultur, 1987, [DVD], 88 minutes, 26 July 2005.
Saltz, David. Editorial Comment. Theatre Journal, 58(2), 173-174, 2006.
Schulman, Jennie. Dance Diary: The Boundless Dance Theatre of Harlem. Back Stage - National Edition 41, no. 39: 11-11, 46, 2000. truction of Giselle Sims, Caitlin. The Classic. Dance Teacher, 29(8), 54-59, 2007.