We need to talk about Giselle! This ballet has recently been in the limelight in the UK, primarily because of Akram Khan’s imaginative and compelling 2016 reworking of the much-loved ballet for English National Ballet, quickly followed by the same Company’s restaging of their traditional Mary Skeaping production, first mounted in 1971, with all its beautiful attention to detail and period style.
But in this post we’re going to focus on dancers rather than on productions. Famously, Théophile Gautier, the Romantic ballet critic, poet and librettist of Giselle compared the two most celebrated ballerinas of the era, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler in contrasting terms: Taglioni as spiritual, “Christian” and aerial, and Elssler as material, “pagan” and “voluptuous” (431, 433). It was thought by the creators of Giselle that the ballerina Carlotta Grisi who originated the role embodied both sets of qualities. In the spirit and tradition of Gautier, some current critics also highlight contrasting qualities in the ballerinas’ portrayals of the character. One of the most eloquent critics in this regard is Judith Mackrell, who in 2004 compared Alina Cojocaru with Tamara Rojo, and nine years later Olesya Novikova with Natalia Osipova. Some of the contrasts she highlights are Cojocaru’s modesty and airiness pitted against Rojo’s “fizziness” in Act I and “radiant stillness” in Act II. Similarly, Mackrell juxtaposes Novikova’s “fragility” “lightness” and “vulnerabilty” with Ospiova’s “terre à terre style”, “visceral portrait of pain” and “terrifying … supernatural force”.
For their run this season from 19th January to 9th March the Royal Ballet is offering no fewer than eight dancers in the role of Giselle, from established ballerinas Laura Morera and Marianela Núñez to the relative newcomers Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi, both making their debuts as Giselle this season. Anton Dolin, who frequently danced Albrecht to Alicia Markova’s Giselle, describes the role of Giselle as “the supreme test for the classical ballerina” (A Portrait of Giselle). So it’s exciting to anticipate which particular qualities Hayward and Naghdi will bring to the part.
Both young ballerinas have danced the Girl in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation, as well as his eponymous heroine in Romeo and Juliet, to critical acclaim, so we know that they are capable of conveying youthful love, desire, longing and tragedy through their dancing and of making their own mark on a role through their individual interpretations and the way in which they articulate movement in accordance with the personal movement styles that they have developed.
Yasmine Naghdi, who plays the piano, sings and composes her own music, is perhaps unsurprisingly known for the musicality of her dancing. Kadeem Hosein evocatively describes how she “gathered up the harp’s music and sent it spilling off the tips of her fingers” when dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy. With her generous port de bras and luscious lines, she has an amplitude that seems to fill the stage, and the poses that she strikes etch themselves on the memory.
The fleet-footed Francesca Hayward has also been noted for her musical sensitivity. Her coach Lesley Collier, herself known for her musicality, declares “you can feel the music travelling through her” (qtd. in Mackrell). Speed of footwork is combined with a wonderful continuity of movement as she barely reaches a position before moving on to the next, thereby creating a seamless flow. This quality is enhanced by the pliancy of her upper body and “hands and arms as light and sensitive as butterflies” (Ismene Brown).
Giselle was created in 1841 by the two choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to music by Adolphe Adam. It was extremely successful and so was staged in various European cities and in America in the years immediately following the premier. However, London’s first exposure to Giselle was in the form of a play based on the ballet, a mere two months after the first performance in Paris (Beaumont 126). Although the ballet Giselle was staged in London as early as 1842, ballet as a national art form didn’t become established until the 20th century in this country, so the first British production wasn’t staged until New Year’s Day 1934. The performance was by the Vic-Wells (later Royal) Ballet with Alicia Markova in the title role. Since then Giselle has been performed by numerous British ballet companies, including Ballet Rambert, Festival (later English National) Ballet, International Ballet, the Markova-Dolin Company, Northern Ballet Theatre and Scottish Ballet. Therefore, the ballet has become a staple of the repertoire in this country, and numerous ballerinas have moved audiences with their rendition of Giselle.
We have chosen to focus on three ballerinas from the past. Although Alicia Markova is an obvious choice as the first British Giselle, Nadia Nerina and Eva Evdokimova may not seem such obvious choices. However, these ballerinas all made their mark as Giselle with British ballet companies, and in their different approaches, temperaments and individual dancing styles reflect the richness of opportunity offered by the role. These three ballerinas can all be seen dancing at least sections of Giselle online or on DVD.
Now, you may already have encountered the ballerina Alicia Markova on British Ballet Now and Then, as she featured in our very first post on The Nutcracker. In Britain her name became practically synonymous with Giselle, as she was not only the first British ballerina to dance the role, but she continued to dance in this ballet until she was well into her 40s. In recognition of the importance of this role for career she wrote a memoir entitled Giselle and I. Anton Dolin describes her as “one of the greatest Giselles of all time” (A Portrait of Giselle). Writing in 2006, the venerable ballet critic Clement Crisp still seemed to her as the standard set for the role, highlighting the “incomparable lightness and clarity in her dancing”, her “effortless” technical achievements and her dramatic “genius” (78).
Like Markova, Evdokimova was known for the otherworldliness that she conveyed in her dancing – she was one of those dancers who seemed to inhabit the ether by nature. You may not be as familiar with this ballerina as with Markova or Nerina. Evdokimova was an important ballerina in the 1970s and 1980s with London Festival Ballet. Although half American and half Bulgarian, and trained in Copenhagen and St. Petersburg as well as in London, it was her idea to change the name of London Festival Ballet to English National Ballet in order to acknowledge the importance of the Company in bringing ballet to different regions of Britain at affordable prices.
While Markova and Evdokimova were both known for the ethereal quality of their dancing, their ethereality was in no way identical. Markova was tiny, quick and apparently weightless, like thistledown. The lissom, willowy Evdokomova portrayed supernatural qualities perhaps more through her seemingly boneless body that appeared to glide through the air with no effort and without ever stopping. Ballet writer Richard Austin encapsulates this continuity of movement when he refers to the “magical unfolding” of her arabesque (75), or her arms rippling like water (25). Even in Act 1 she appeared to belong more to another world than to the everyday reality of village life, her performance being imbued with “spiritual beauty” (Austin 50).
The South African Nerina, on the other hand, was known for her ebullient nature, virtuosic technique, speed and attack. She excelled as Swanilda in Coppélia, and Frederick Ashton chose her to create the role of Lise in his La Fille mal gardée. Therefore, perhaps it comes as no surprise that Nerina’s spirited and exuberant Giselle in Act I accentuates the character’s physical energy and human corporeality, and her expansive dancing in Act II seems more like an elemental force of nature arising from the wildness of the forest than a translucent wraith drawn from the ether (Giselle).
Galina Ulanova, Carla Fracci and Natalia Makarova, all celebrated and individual exponents of Giselle, explain how their interpretations of Giselle continued to develop over the years, never remaining fixed (A Portrait of Giselle). More recently, Tamara Rojo has stated that after over one hundred performances, she always finds something new in the role (Giselle: Belle of the Ballet).
So, it will not only be fascinating to see how Francseca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi approach the role Giselle with all its wonderful possibilities for interpretation, but also to see how they develop the role in years to come.
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … in recognition of English National Ballet’s revival of Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, we will be thinking about female choreographers in British ballet companies.
A Portrait of Giselle. Kultur, 1982.
Austin, Richard. The Ballerina. Vision, 1974.
Beaumont, Cyril W. The Ballet Called Giselle. C. W. Beaumont, 1944.
Brown, Ismene. “This Juliet Needs a New Romeo”. The Spectator, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/this-juliet-needs-a-new-romeo/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.
Crisp, Clement. “Alicia Markova: a sketch for a portrait”. Dance Research, vol. 24, no. 2, 2006, pp. 75-86.
Gautier, Théophile. “Fanny Elssler in “La Tempête””.What is Dance? Oxford UP, 1983, pp. 431-34.
Giselle. British Broadcasting Corporation, 23 Nov. 1958. ICA Classics, 2011.
Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, directed by Dominic Best, British Broadcasting Corporation with English National Ballet, 2 Apr. 2017.
Hosein, Kadeem. “Yasmine Naghdi’s Sugar Plum Shines in the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker”. Online River, 26 Nov. 2016, http://riveronline.co.uk/review-yasmine-naghdis-sugar-plum-shines-in-the-royal-ballets-nutcracker/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.
Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle”,The Guardian, 15 Jan. 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/jan/15/dance. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.
—. “The Mikhailovsky Ballet and a Tale of Two Giselles”,The Guardian, 25 Mar. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/mar/25/mikhailovsky-ballet-london-season-giselle. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.
Markova, Alicia. Giselle and I. Barry and Rockliff, 1960.
© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018
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