Three posts on love – II

18 06 2009

Act I – A rustic village

Giselle, a weak-hearted young girl who is adored by her native villagers, lives with her watchful mother, Berthe. Hilarion, the village gamekeeper, is desperately in love with Giselle. Prince Albrecht, a nobleman who is already engaged to a noblewoman named Bathilde, is bored and lonely with his everyday existence. Captivated by Giselle’s frail beauty and innocence, Albrecht disguises himself as a peasant named Loys. After purchasing the cottage adjacent to Berthe’s, he proceeds to shower Giselle with his affections.

Hilarion, filled with suspicion and jealousy, becomes enraged when Giselle falls madly in love with Albrecht and believes that they are engaged.

Berthe has a vision that her daughter will one day become a Wili, a jilted maiden who dies before her wedding night. The Wilis emerge between midnight and dawn to vengefully trap any man who enters their domain by forcing him to dance to his death.

Hilarion exposes Albrecht’s disguise and proclaims that he is already betrothed to Bathilde. Overwhelmingly distraught and horrified, Giselle dies of a broken heart.

Act II – A forest clearing

Hilarion is discovered just before midnight keeping vigil by Giselle’s tomb. As midnight approaches, the Wilis appear with their leader, Queen Myrta. This is the night Giselle is to be initiated as a Wili.

Albrecht, laden with feelings of guilt and remorse, visits Giselle’s grave. He sees a vision of Giselle and follows it into the forest. At this point, Myrta discovers Hilarion in the forest and orders the Wilis to dance around him until he dies from exhaustion. She then discovers Albrecht and demands that he share the same fate as Hilarion but is unable to permeate the invisible bond of love that Giselle has for him.

At dawn, when the Wilis lose their power and must retreat to their dwelling place, Albrecht is saved and Giselle forgives him. Giselle returns with the Wilis and recognizes that now she will be one of them for the rest of time.

(Synopsis taken from this site.)


Feminists would no doubt cringe at this story, and they would have good reason to do so. After all, a woman dying for love of a man, and then forgiving him to the point of saving his life from the souls of other broken-hearted women who would unleash their just wrath against him… no wonder they call Giselle one of the greatest of the romantic ballets (as opposed to the “classic” ones). Under of all of this emotional kitsch, however, there is a lost grammar buried, one where love counts not the cost of its own sacrifices, even if it leads to death or eternal damnation, as in the case of our own Giselle. Buried outside of God’s forgiveness, on unconsecrated ground, to haunt the night with all of the other souls in the outer darkness, she still finds it in herself to show love to the man who betrayed her. Melodrama? Yes. But can there be something more profound there? Absolutely.

This all didn’t sit well with part of me. Part of me is like all of you: it asks first of love: what’s in it for me? But there is still that childish voice of a St. Therese and others who would say: I would like to be in Hell so there would be someone even there who loves God. Love speaks like that, amour fou, love that loses itself in the other. It transcends ideology, and it transcends common sense, and part of me feels that we are less and less capable of even admiring such displays. Giselle, for all of its emotional cheesiness, at least gets that much across.

Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.




One response

8 09 2009

“Feminists would no doubt cringe at this story, and they would have good reason to do so. After all, a woman dying for love of a man, and then forgiving him to the point of saving his life from the souls of other broken-hearted women who would unleash their just wrath against him”

I’m reminded here of Croce’s quote that Balanchine was a true feminist, for his ballerinas don’t live and die for love…but that’s of course a modern reading of the lives of women. (As the binding prayers show, for much of history women really have lived and died for love.) Part of the image of the feminine is of course She Who Forgives, and Giselle certainly fits that ideal, as does Odette in “Swan Lake.”

Fascinatingly, in both, their forgiveness of their respective mates also renders them saviors: Giselle literally saves Albrecht from death, and Odette offers Siegfried redemption through love. (For anyone who thinks that this is just the typical tragic ballet plot of the 19th century, in “La Bayadere” the betrayed-and dead-Nikiya causes her lover Solor’s death by bringing the temple down on him in the rarely performed 3rd act.) In “The Sleeping Beauty,” even though it is a man’s kiss that must awaken her, Aurora is the savior of enlightenment values of reason and harmony; thus, the whole kingdom must sleep with her until she is resurrected.

Now these examples may be a reflection of the importance of the ballerina in 19th century ballet, or indications of the shift in thinking of sacrificial victims as male to female, but I think they also indicate the important of women, and feminine virtues, as agents in salvation. In some ways, I think of these as proto-feminist works. After all, the Imperial Ballet trained Balanchine got his feminist take on women from somewhere….

On youtube, there is a great clip of Kirkland dancing Giselle’s first act solo:

There’s also a wonderful quip of Dowell and Sibley rehearsing the Act 2 mime from “Swan Lake”

If the first clip, Kirkland portrays a Giselle so fragile, delicate, and vulnerable, that one can believe that she’d die of a broken heart. In the second clip, Sibley’s mime really shows the tragedy of Odette’s situation. As Balanchine once quipped (paraphrased) – “he’s falling in love with a swan-woman, of course this is going to end badly.”

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