Giselle, or The 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 June 28, 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 Theater of Harlem. This adaptation set the ballet among the Creoles and African Americans in 1840s Louisiana.