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About the Change

Mary Skeaping’s Giselle

Jane Pritchard on a timeless gem in the English National Ballet’s repertoire

© Zoe Dominic

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In Spring 2005, Mary Skeaping’s much loved, traditional staging of Giselle will return to English National Ballet’s repertoire. This was only the second Giselle to be danced by the Company and it ceased to be performed only when Derek Deane produced his 1994 version, in which he updated the narrative to about 1920. The revival of Skeaping’s ballet will be supervised by Dame Beryl Grey who, as Artistic Director of London Festival Ballet was responsible for commissioning the production in 1971, and Lynn Vella-Gatt a former notator and repetiteur with the Company.

Mary Skeaping (1902-1984) had learnt Giselle in 1925 as a dancer in Anna Pavlova's Company and also danced in it for the Camargo Ballet Society (1932) and with the Markova-Dolin Ballet in the mid-1930s. She went on to mount six different versions, all the while researching and restoring as much of the detail of the ballet and its music as she could. In the 1950s Skeaping unearthed the original score at the Archives of the Paris Opera and she learnt much of the ballet's traditional mime from the great Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina.

Dancers of London Festival Ballet in Act II of Giselle
© Anthony Crickmay

Skeaping aimed to make the 19th century romantic ballet meaningful for audiences today. To give a logic to the royal party stopping at Giselle's home in Act I, she accepted a suggestion from the designer Hein Heckroth to draw on the German custom of designating selected cottages as places for wine tasting during the harvest. She also included the controversial fugue in Act II - she regarded the narrative during the fugue as central to the ballet’s conflict between the supernatural and the religious.  At this point in the ballet, Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, sends wave after wave of wilis (a species of vampire women who died having been jilted by faithless lovers) to lure Albrecht from the safety of the cross on Giselle's grave.

Dame Beryl Grey coaching Daria Klimentova and Dmitri Gruzdyev in ENB's revival of Giselle
© John Ross

Giselle was the idea of the poet and critic Théophile Gautier, who had been looking for a vehicle to display the talents of a young dancer at the Paris Opéra, Carlotta Grisi.  As this was the first time Gautier had developed a scenario for a ballet, he enlisted the aid of the more experienced Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. Giselle was premiered at the Théâtre de l'Academie royale de musique, Paris, on 28 June 1841. The choreography was officially credited to Jean Coralli but much of it, particularly for Giselle herself, was by Jules Perrot.

Manola Asensio (right) and Eva Evdokimova in Skeaping's Giselle
© Zoe Dominic

The work was in the fashionable Romantic style and influenced by the two-act structure of La Sylphide. Apart from the general romantic influences on a universally popular theme of love beyond death, there were two specific sources for Giselle. Firstly there was the poem, Fantômes, published in the volume Les Orientales by the romantic writer Victor Hugo in 1829. This told of a Spanish girl who, as the poem says, ‘was overfond of dancing and that killed her'. Secondly there was the Austrian legend of the Wilis, which attracted attention through the writings of Heinrich Heine. Heine wrote about the Wilis in the French newspaper, Europe Literaire in 1833 and later in his book About Germany (Uber Deutschland or De l'Allemagne): ‘At midnight they rise, gather in groups upon the highways and woe betide the young man who meets them. They make him dance, encircling him with unbridled abandon, dance without rest, until he falls dead.   Arrayed in their wedding garments, wreaths of flowers and fluttering ribbons on their heads, sparkling rings on their fingers the Wilis dance in the moonlight, just like elves.   Their faces, though white as snow, are young and beautiful; their laughter is horribly gay, their friendliness evil they beckon with such secret desire, such promise - they are irresistible.’

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