What “Giselle” says about society in the 1840’s.
You may be familiar with the saying that “Art is a reflection of society.”
Modern-day stories such as Disney’s Frozen raise comments about feminism, and McAllister’s ‘The Happy Prince,’ raise questions about social judgement and privilege, all of which are central social concerns of today’s society.
So, what cunning edge social beliefs did the Romantic ballet, “Giselle,” carry? You may believe that Giselle’s old, conservative period forces the ballet to avoid social commentary, but, Giselle is considered an artistic snapshot of the contemporary, modern societal beliefs of the nineteenth century.
Click below for a sypnopsis of Giselle by The Australian Ballet:
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It’s not exactly a ‘feminist’ piece…
Surprise! The 1840’s were not well-versed on feminism… The entire narrative of Giselle is based around the 1840’s understanding of female ‘hysteria,’ referring to uncontrollable emotion that was considered a mental illness linked to gender/the womb. Giselle is driven into hysterical madness over her broken heart.
Moreover, doctors of the time conducted strong research into the link between hysteria and sexuality, which may explain the link between Giselle’s overwhelming love for Albrecht, and her ‘hysterical’ mental state.
Sadly, it is safe to say Giselle encouraged the concept of a ‘hysterical female’ when first performed.
The High Value of Love
Romantic Ballets love love.
Ballet, as well as many other Western pieces (Looking at you, Romeo and Juliet!) considered love to be of high enough value to make death acceptable and understandable.
Just look at when Giselle declares the extent of her love to Albrecht- when she realises it is unattainable, she dies. Moreover, when Albrecht is consumed by overwhelming heartache for Giselle, he realises a future with her is unattainable, so he risks his life in exchange for a few hours with Giselle.
Love is a fascination of many Western artists, and it is very clear that ‘love’ troupes are not unique to Romantic thinking.
Although seemingly different, Giselle and The Bachelor do share a strong worship of love!
Escape to the Countryside!
If there’s one BIG thing to know about Giselle’s setting, it’ll be the fact we’re in the middle of a widespread European Industrial Revolution. As you may know, this marks the beginning of increased city living, however, many Romantics longed for ‘the good old days,’ where everyone lived in a natural rustic setting.
Just like today, entertainment created an escape from the troubles of daily life, which may be why we spend Act 1 in Giselle’s idealistic rural village. All productions of Giselle emphasise the quaint, simple charm of the village through rustic colours, using bright, sparkly dances to bring out a utopian nature.
It appears that Giselle may be calling for their society to return to a more natural, simple and authentic life, but judging by the closeness of the ‘Willis’ to the village, we doubt anyone is particularly inclined to ‘move in.’
The Supernatural Power of the Soul
The Romantics also had a fascination with the supernatural power of the human soul, (Frankenstein, anyone?) which is why Giselle turns into a ghostly, tragic nightmare in Act II.
Act II of Giselle is characterised by supernatural mysteriousness, moonlit ethereal dances and strong swells in both emotion and music. Giselle’s real-life society had a focus on the relationship between the earthly and the ghostly, believing strongly in supernatural elements on earth.
Introducing the Willis, who indulge in their passion for dancing, and are spiteful in nature as they died unmarried, generally spiteful of men and mad in grief. Although dead, the soul still lives on, haunting the likes of Albrecht, Hilarion and other men who face them.
Some fun facts about Act II:
A prominent troupe in Romantic ballets was the ballet blanc, meaning a scene where the ballerina and all female corps de ballet dancers wear all white dresses and tutus. This was sparked by ‘La Sylphide,’ which is why both ballets have a “white act” in them.
Act II has evolved with technological advancements, using smoke machines, screens and stage lighting to achieve this supernatural element. However, the ballet wasn’t always as safe as it is now, as dancer Emma Livry discovered in 1863 when her white tutu caught fire on a gas light in a Giselle rehearsal.
If you’re interested in learning more about Giselle’s story and themes, take a squiz at these resources: https://www.queenslandballet.com.au/uploads/QB-Education-Giselle-Teachers'-Resource-Kit.pdf https://mh.bmj.com/content/30/2/79