‘Giselle’ at The Kennedy Center by Carolyn Kelemen

Romantic Giselle gets new life

When The Paris Opera Ballet performs Giselle at The Kennedy Center through the weekend, you won’t see the traditional, slow entrance from the wings by the “Wilis” – those spooky maidens whose fiances failed to marry them before their deaths. Instead, these brides-to-be (who die on the eve of their wedding) emerge in a cloud of smoke and scare away the peasant men, gathered in the secluded cemetery where they are making merry. The 32 spirits seemingly appear from all corners of the stage to create havoc – strange, yet hauntingly beautiful.

The cast of dancer of 'Giselle.' Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Often it’s the sublime second act entrance that can make or break the reputation of a company, especially the all-female corps. Happily, the French have a splendid, praise-worthy rendition, adapted by Patrice Bart, a star, himself, with The Paris Opera Ballet, and choreographer Eugene Polyakov. As a result, they have kept the graveyard scene as close as possible to the original ballet, created by poet Theophile Gautier, composer Adolphe Adam, and choreographers Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, with additional contribution by the Russian master Marius Petipa.

For over a century and a half, Giselle has been called the “ultimate romantic ballet.” At its premiere in Paris in 1841, it was hailed as one of the greatest of all dances and remains today the supreme achievement of that era with the perfect fusion of dance and drama.

Giselle has been dubbed “The Hamlet’ of Dance,” not merely for its enduring qualities but perhaps because it provides the ballerina with a double challenge to dance and to act. The ballet relates the story of a simple peasant girl who goes mad and dies for the love of an aristocrat who deceives her. In the after-life, she becomes a “wili,” a spirit in a long white tutu who dances men to death.

The plot of Giselle is itself intriguing. Albrecht’s betrayal of an innocent maiden touches the heart in a more direct way than the allegorical Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. It opens in a Rhine village where peasants have gathered to celebrate the harvest. Kudos to costume and set designer Alexandre Benois with touches of elegance for the court.

The character Hilarion (a predecessor of Oklahoma’s Jud Fry) pursues Giselle, but her heart beats only for Albrecht, a duke disguised as a peasant. The passion and jealously leads to intense romance, followed by a fight between the men, and eventually Albrecht’s confession of infidelity as he is betrothed to a princess.

A broken-hearted, bereft of her senses, Giselle performs the grief-stricken “mad dance,” which has become the litmus test of prima ballerinas. In this slow-moving solo, Giselle tremulously stumbles through steps she and Albrecht had danced together, and after a last frightened run, dies in her mother’s arms.

French ballerina Aurelie Dupont, a classical dancer with a beautiful line and gorgeous feet, brought a special sweetness to the role on opening night. The dark haired beauty wasn’t content to merely dance Giselle; she became Giselle and her tenderness of acting matched her dancing.

Tall, handsome Mathieu Ganio (Albrecht) showed off his sensitive partnering as her lover. He also pulled off a set of breathtaking high jumps with such ‘ballon’ rarely seen these days.

Dupont and Ganio did not completely steal the spotlight, however. Special note should be made of Marie-Agnes Gillot as Myrtha, all-powerful queen of the Wilis, whose cold, imperious solo awakens the ghost-maidens and commands their would-be-husbands (who return each evening to place flowers on their graves) to dance until death. Gillot was mesmerizing in her ghostly floats across the stage, and made the spirit queen into the third lead role, rather than a supporting part.

The Thursday evening cast executed the steps with grace and aplomb.

It was a magical night.

Cast of dancers from 'Giselle.' Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Running Time: Approximately two hours with one intermission.

The Paris Opera Ballet performs Giselle at The Kennedy Center Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC – on Friday, July 6, at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, July 7, at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, July 8, at 1:30 p.m. Tickets range from $29 to $150, and are available online, or by calling the box office at (800) 444-1324, or 202-467-4600.


The Paris Opera Ballet website.



  1. Great piece on Giselle! I was going to give this a miss — too hot, too much going on — but now I can’t wait to see it. Any connection between “the Wilis” and “he gives me the willies”? Because even as ethereal and gorgeous as they are, the Wilis still give me the Willies.


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