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This article is about the ballet. For other uses, see Giselle (disambiguation).
Giselle C Grisi as Giselle 1842.JPG
Carlotta Grisi as the first Giselle (1842)
Choreographer Jean Coralli
Jules Perrot
Music Adolphe Adam
Libretto Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges
Théophile Gautier
Based on Heinrich Heine's De l'Allemagne
Victor Hugo's "Fantômes" from Les Orientales
Premiere Sunday 28 June 1841 – Paris, France
Original ballet company Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique
Characters Giselle, a peasant girl
Albrecht, Duke of Silesia
Hilarion, a gamekeeper
Berthe, Giselle's mother
Bathilde, a princess
Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
Setting Rhineland during the Middle Ages
Created for Carlotta Grisi
Genre Fantasy
Type Romantic ballet

Giselle, or The Wilis (French: Giselle, ou Les Wilis) is a romantic ballet in two acts. Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier wrote the libretto. They took their inspiration from a prose passage about the Wilis in Elementargeister by Heinrich Heine, and from a poem about a girl who dies after an all-night ball called "Fantômes" in Les Orientales by Victor Hugo. Adolphe Adam composed the music; Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot composed the choreography. Carlotta Grisi was the first to dance the role of Giselle.

The ballet is about a peasant girl named Giselle who dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover is betrothed to another. The Wilis, a group of supernatural women who dance men to death, summon Giselle from her grave. They target her lover for death, but Giselle's love frees him from their grasp.

Giselle was first performed by the Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris, France, on Sunday 28 June 1841. The opening night was a triumph with both critics and the public. The ballet became hugely popular. It was staged across Europe, Russia, and the United States.

The traditional choreography that has been passed down to the present day derives primarily from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. Petipa's choreography from the Imperial Ballet's production was notated in the Stepanov method of choreographic notation in 1903 as Petipa himself took the great Anna Pavlova through rehearsals. Many years later, the Imperial Ballet's régisseur Nicholas Sergeyev would use this notation to stage Giselle throughout Europe, most notably for the Ballets Russes in 1910, the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1924 and, perhaps most importantly, for the Vic-Wells Ballet (precursor of the Royal Ballet in London) in 1934. It is from this 1934 staging that nearly all subsequent productions of Giselle are now based. Today the Imperial Ballet's choreographic notation of Giselle, along with notations for many ballets of the traditional classical repertory, are part of the Sergeyev Collection and preserved in the Harvard University Library theatre collection.

In a departure from the traditional Giselle, Frederic Franklin restaged the ballet in 1988 as Creole Giselle for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. This adaptation set the ballet among the Creoles and African Americans in 1840s Louisiana.


Gautier, 1838

French ballet critic Théophile Gautier was inspired by Victor Hugo's poem "Fantômes" in Les Orientales to create a ballet scenario. This poem told of a young girl who dies in the cool morning air after dancing all night in a ballroom.

He also took inspiration from a prose passage in Heinrich Heine's "Elementargeister"("Elemental Spirits", essay on folklore, 1837) describing supernatural young women called the Wilis. These women dance men to death.

Gautier was not satisfied with his scenario and took it to professional librettist Jules-Henri Verney de Saint-Georges for advice. Verney de Saint-Georges liked the concept. In three days, he had completed a libretto.

This libretto was sent to M. Pillet, the director of the Paris Opéra. Pillet needed a good story to introduce Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi to the Paris public. Pillet and Grisi both liked the libretto, and the ballet was put into production at once. The score was an anomaly amongst the majority of ballet scorings up to this point in that it was an almost entirely original composition, instead of a potpourri of classical melodies, as was a practice at that time when mounting dance productions. The composer, Adolphe Adam, also successfully integrated leitmotivs, most evident in Giselle's famous "mad-scene". These thematic elements were musical devices used to strategically recall happier times, against the unfolding drama of Giselle's breaking heart and subsequent death of a broken heart.

Characters in the first performance[edit]

Drawing of a crowd of costumed dancers dancing around a stage beneath a large tree. Atop the stage is a lone female dancer.
Giselle is crowned Queen of the Vintage in an illustration from 1845
  • Duke Albrecht of Silesia, masquerading as a peasant named Loys
  • The Prince of Courland
  • Wilfride, Albrecht's squire
  • Hilarion, a gamekeeper
  • Old Peasant Man (usually cut in modern performances)
  • Bathilde, the Duke's fiancée
  • Giselle, a peasant girl
  • Berthe, Giselle's mother
  • Myrtha, Queen of the Wili
  • Zulmé, a Wili
  • Moyne, a Wili


Act I[edit]

Anna Pavlova as Giselle (before 1931)

The ballet opens on an autumnal day in the Rhineland during the Middle Ages. The grape harvest is underway. Duke Albrecht of Silesia, a young nobleman disguised as a peasant, is sowing his last wild oats before marriage to the princess Bathilde. He has fallen in love with the shy and beautiful village girl, Giselle. She knows nothing of his real life.

Hilarion, a gamekeeper, is also in love with Giselle. He tries to convince her that Albrecht cannot be trusted. Giselle ignores his warnings. Giselle's mother Berthe is very protective of her daughter, as Giselle has a weak heart that leaves her in delicate health. She discourages a relationship between Giselle and Albrecht.

Carlotta Grisi and Lucien Petipa (the first Giselle and Albrecht) on a sheet music cover, 1841

A party of noblemen seeking refreshment following the rigors of the hunt arrives in the village. Albrecht quickly hurries away, knowing he will be recognized by Bathilde, who is in attendance. The villagers welcome the party, offer them refreshments, and perform several dances. Bathilde is charmed with Giselle's sweet and demure nature, not knowing of her fiance's relationship with her. Giselle is honored when the beautiful stranger offers her a necklace as a gift.

Hilarion interrupts the festivities. He has discovered Albrecht's sword, and presents it as proof that the peasant lad is not who he pretends to be. All are shocked by the revelation, but none more than Giselle, who becomes inconsolable when faced with her lover's deception. Knowing that they can never be together, Giselle flies into a mad fit of grief, causing her weak heart to give out at last. She dies in Albrecht's arms.

Act II[edit]

Nijinsky as Albrecht, 1910

A moonlit glade near Giselle's grave. Hilarion mourns at Giselle's headstone, but is frightened away by the arrival of the Wilis, the spirits of women jilted by their lovers at the altar. The Wilis, led by their merciless queen, Myrtha, haunt the forest at night to seek revenge on any man they encounter, forcing their victims to dance until they die of exhaustion.

Myrtha and the Wilis rouse Giselle's spirit from her grave and induct her into their clan, before disappearing into the forest. Albrecht arrives to lay flowers on Giselle's grave, and he weeps with guilt over her death. Giselle's spirit appears, and Albrecht begs her forgiveness. Giselle, her love undiminished, gently forgives him. She disappears to join the rest of the Wilis, and Albrecht desperately follows her.

Ballerina Jocelyn Vollmar as Myrtha, San Francisco Ballet, 1947

Meanwhile, the Wilis have cornered Hilarion. They use their magic to force him to dance until he is nearly dead, and then drown him in a nearby lake. They then turn on Albrecht, sentencing him to death as well. He pleads to Myrtha for his life, but she coldly refuses. Giselle's pleas are also dismissed, and Albrecht is forced to dance until sunrise. However, the power of Giselle's love counters the Wilis' magic and spares his life. The other spirits return to their graves at daybreak, but Giselle has broken through the feelings of hatred and vengeance that control the Wilis, and is thus released from their powers. After bidding a tender farewell to Albrecht, Giselle returns to her grave to rest in peace.



Grisi as Giselle in Act II, 1841

The role of Giselle is one of the most famous Romantic ballet roles, and was created and first performed by Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi in June 1841. The character is a sweet, innocent, beautiful young peasant girl with a great love for dancing, but is forbidden to dance by her mother in fear of Giselle's health for the girl has a weak heart. Giselle finds herself caught up in a love rectangle, which takes a tragic turn after she discovers that her lover 'Loys' is really Duke Albrecht in disguise and is engaged to another woman. Devastated, she goes mad and dies of a broken heart. But even after her death, Giselle's love is undiminished. Summoned from her grave to join the Wilis, Giselle refuses to take revenge on Albrecht and instead, protects him, defending him until dawn and saving his life. Giselle's love has transcended death and she returns to her grave to rest in peace, never to again associate with the Wilis.


Albrecht is a young Duke and was first performed by French ballet dancer Lucien Petipa, brother of Marius Petipa, in June 1841. The character is usually portrayed as unhappy with his life as a nobleman, which also indicates that his engagement to Bathilde was arranged, and is partly motivated to act upon his love for Giselle by the freedom her world seems to offer. Unfortunately, he is not quite realistic enough to realise that a relationship with Giselle may never be possible, but he allows his heart to think and choose for him. However, his actions lead to tragic consequences that he could never have foreseen when Giselle goes mad after discovering the truth of his identity and dies of a broken heart. Albrecht is left stunned by grief and guilt and visits Giselle's grave so that he may grieve, but she suddenly appears to him as a spirit. Full of remorse, he begs for her forgiveness and she readily forgives him. But Albrecht soon enters a deadly trap set by the Wilis, who sentence him to death and force him into an endless dance. Giselle, however, refuses to let him die, but as the night goes on, Albrecht's strength ebbs away to the point where he collapses of exhaustion. When he reaches the brink of death, hope strikes as the morning bells chime to herald the dawn. Giselle's love has saved Albrecht and despite his pleadings, she returns to her grave and Albrecht is left alone to continue his grieving.


Hilarion is a gamekeeper, who is also in love with Giselle and was first performed by M. Simon. He is principally a mime role, but he dances very briefly in the second act and is usually presented as a virile, crude and suspicious peasant. He also appears to be quite arrogant and proud as he is very confident that he will marry Giselle and even appears to believe that there is something between them, even though she has clearly shown that she does not reciprocate his feelings. Hilarion's chances of winning her are thwarted for good when Giselle falls in love with Albrecht, making Hilarion bitterly jealous. Despite Giselle's rejection of him, Hilarion discovers Albrecht's true identity and deception and wastes no time in exposing him. In an arrogant attempt to win Giselle and humiliate his rival, Hilarion publicly tells Giselle that Albrecht is really a nobleman in disguise, but the outcome is not what he had hoped for, as Giselle goes mad and dies. After Giselle's death, Hilarion keeps vigil by her grave, but he is soon met by his downfall and pays the price for his role in Giselle's death with his own blood. He crosses the path of the Wilis, who force him into an endless dance and once he is drained of his strength, they drown him in a nearby lake.


Berthe is a mime role. She is Giselle's mother and appears only in Act I. Though not evident in the original libretto, one production (Paris Opéra Ballet, 2006) suggested that Giselle is the illegitimate offspring of the Duke of Courland, making her Bathilde's sister.

Giselle has a weak heart, so Berthe hovers about her protecting the child from physical stress such as dancing. Berthe is afraid Giselle will die and become one of the Wilis.

Berthe discourages the budding relationship between her Giselle and Albrecht (he is a relatively unknown newcomer to the community), but favors a relationship with the steady and stable, but dull Hilarion and her daughter.

Berthe has a long, tense mime solo in Act I in which she describes the Wilis and the dangers they present to young people. This solo is sometimes cut.

Bathilde and the Duke of Courland[edit]

Bathilde is the daughter of the Duke of Courland. She is betrothed to Albrecht. In the original production, Bathilde and her father arrive in the village on horseback. This entrance is cut in modern productions; Bathilde and her father simply walk on with the members of the hunting party.

Bathilde and her father are mime roles. Bathilde has been variously interpreted: in some instances she has been played as a vain, impatient, short tempered woman (making Albrecht's philandering understandable, but not forgivable), and in other instances she is played as a beautiful, gracious and generous young woman (making Albrecht's philandering puzzling, selfish, and cruel). She wears magnificent attire, which attracts Giselle's notice and admiration. In one production, it was subtly suggested that Bathilde's father is also Giselle's father. This would mean that Giselle is Bathilde's sister.

In the original production, the hunting party remained on stage to witness Giselle's death, but, in modern productions, Bathilde, her father, and the members of the hunting party slip away before the heroine's death. In the original production, Bathilde and her entourage appeared at the end of Act II searching for Albrecht, who collapsed in their arms. In modern productions however, Giselle sinks into her grave and Albrecht leaves the stage alone, dazed and grieving.

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis[edit]

Adèle Dumilâtre (1821-1909) as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (sometimes spelled Myrta) was first performed by ballerina Adèle Dumilâtre. The character of Myrtha is somewhat enigmatic, but what the libretto of the ballet seems to tell us is that she, as the queen of the vengeful, ghost-like wilis (pronounced villees), holds ultimate power over the ghostly sisterhood. The Wilis do her bidding in the Bavarian forest each night between twilight and dawn, seeking only male prey whom they force, with the help of seemingly magical mistletoe twigs, to dance until their hearts give out—or at least until they are so weak that a few Wilis can throw them into a lake to drown, if there is one conveniently located nearby.

Performance history[edit]

Poster for the first performance, 1841

The ballet was first presented at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris on Sunday 28 June 1841. The scenery was designed by Pierre Ciceri; the costumes were designed by Paul Lormier. Carlotta Grisi played Giselle, Lucien Petipa played Albrecht, and Adèle Dumilâtre played Myrtha. The ballet remained in the repertoire at the Paris Opéra until 1849. Grisi and Petipa always danced the principal roles. The ballet was revived several times, but after 1868 the ballet disappeared in Paris. In 1910, Giselle was staged by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the principal roles. Alexandre Benois was the designer. The Paris Opéra ballet restaged Giselle in 1924 for visiting Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva.[1]

On 12 March 1842, the ballet was first presented in England at Her Majesty's Theatre, London with Carlotta Grisi and Jules Perrot in the principal roles and Louise Fleury as Myrtha.[2] On 30 December of the same year, the ballet was first presented in St. Petersburg at the Bolshoi Theatre with Elena Andreyanova as Giselle.

In Italy, it was first presented in Milan at Teatro alla Scala on 17 January 1843 with choreography by A. Cortesi and music by N. Bajetti. In the United States, the ballet premiered at the Howard Atheneum in Boston on January 1, 1846 with Mary Ann Lee and George Washington Smith in the principal roles.[3]

The version passed down to the present day was staged by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet (today the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet). Petipa staged his revival of Giselle in 1884 for the Ballerina Maria Gorshenkova, but made his final touches to the work for Anna Pavlova's debut in 1903.

Résumé of scenes and dances[edit]

Giselle, or The Wilis by Adolphe Adam act 1, Introduction

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Act I

  • no.1 Introduction
  • no.2 Scène première
  • no.3 Entrée d'Albrecht
  • no.4 Entrée de Giselle
  • no.5 Scène dansante
  • interpolation - Pas de deux pour Mlle Maria Gorshenkova (Ludwig Minkus; 1884; this piece was only included in Imperial-era productions)
  • no.6 Scène de Hilarion
  • no.7 Retour de la vendange
  • interpolation - Pas de cinq pour Mlle Carlotta Grisi (Cesare Pugni; 1850; only included for Grisi's performance)
  • no.8 Valse
  • no.9 Scène dansante
  • no.10 Le récit de Berthe
  • no.11 Scène : La chasse royale
  • no.12 Scène de Hilarion
  • no.13 Marche des vignerons
  • interpolation - Variation pour Mlle Elena Cornalba (aka Pas seul) (likely composed by Riccardo Drigo for Cornalba's debut as Giselle, December 1887)
  • interpolation - Pas de deux pour Mlle Nathalie Fitzjames (aka Peasant pas de deux)
Fashioned from Souvenirs de Ratisbonne by Johann Friedrich Franz Burgmüller, c. 1841 –
a. Entrée
b. Andante
c. Variation
d. Variation
interpolation - supplemental female variation (Mariinsky Theatre staging) (Riccardo Drigo. Variation for the ballerina Emma Bessone, 1886)
e. Variation
f. Coda
  • no.14 Galop général
  • no.15 Grande scène dramatique : La folie de Giselle

Act II

  • no.16 Introduction et scène
  • no.17 Entrée et danse de Myrthe
  • no.18 Entrée des Wilis
  • no.19 Grand pas des Wilis
  • no.20 Entrée de Giselle
  • no.21 Entrée d'Albrecht
  • no.22 L'apparition de Giselle
  • no.23 La mort de Hilarion
  • no.24 Scène des Wilis
  • no.25 Grand pas d'action
a. Grand adage
b. Variation de Giselle
c. Variation
interpolation - Variation pour Mlle. Adèle Grantzow (likely composed by Cesare Pugni; 1867)
d. Coda
  • no.26 Scène finale

Selected video[edit]


  1. ^ Ashton 1985, p. 42
  2. ^ Review "Her Majesty's Treatre" (sic) in The Times, Monday, 14 March 1842, page 3 column B.
  3. ^ Balachine 1975, p. 193

External links[edit]