Because I too love symbolism, I checked the meaning of the various names used. There’s an interesting mix which made me think the composer, Adolphe Adam, picked some deliberately for their translations, while others were simply chosen either for their commonality, or for reasons I cannot fathom. Giselle, for example, is Old German for “pledge” or “hostage” — she was certainly a hostage to love betrayed. Her mother’s name, Berthe, is Old German for “bright,” but also was a very common woman’s name in the late 1800’s, which is my guess as to why that name was chosen.
Albrecht means “all-bright,” which is the Old German term for a nobleman — no surprise there. The name Loys, on the other hand, is Old English for one who is loyal or faithful. Does this signify he was indeed faithful to Giselle after her death? Interesting thought, especially since his higher-born fiancee’s name, Bathilde, signifies “woman warrior.” Also curious is the meaning of the names for two of the Wilis, Myrtha and Moyna. They are variants of the same name, which is Old English for “beloved.” I found it an odd choice for a woman betrayed in love.
Apparently the earliest versions of the ballet had only the Wili Queen Moyna; it was the later Russian rendition which demoted her to Queen’s assistant along with Zulna, and renamed the Queen Myrtha. Moyna is described in the program book as an odalisque, which is a woman who cohabits with an important man. I’m guessing that’s a polite way to say she was a “kept” woman. Could the “important man” have been who betrayed her in love and left her to die?
Zulna is listed as a bayadére, which I found even more confusing, since that is apparently a female dancer in the East Indies. Further, Zulna does not seem to be an actual name; the closest I could find was Zulema, which is Arabic for “peace.” My guess is this name was made up by the Russian choreographer in the late 1800’s, meant to sound exotic and to justify the addition of a potential East Indies influence in the costuming or dancing. At the time the East Indies were considered a strange and mysterious place full of sultry, dusky island women just dying (no pun intended) to be swept away by strong masculine colonizing white men, after all. ;)
We come now to the last name on the list: the name of the gamekeeper who was spurned by Giselle for love of Loys. This poor guy really got the shaft in this story. Not only is he dumped like a hot potato by Giselle when the more mysterious Loys turns up, but she won’t give him the time of day even after she’s dead — he’s danced to death by the Wilis before Giselle even arrives. In Act I she yanks away from him when he exposes Loys’ deceit by bringing out the nobleman’s sword, and in the pre-Russian version of the ballet he then gets to see her stab herself to death with the sword — the very one he’d just produced. Interestingly, apparently the Russian choreographer thought that was too… aggressive, and had her die of a broken heart instead.
Further, it’s her spurned swain, not Albrecht, that makes a simple wooden cross for her unmarked grave, rather than bringing flowers as the nobleman did. Couldn’t a rich aristocrat have afforded a nice, engraved marble cross, instead of a bunch of daisies? My other thought was: surely in the late 1800s a cross would have been considered the more useful item, so the girl’s grave was both sanctified, and not left unmarked and forgotten?
But anyway. So, what is the name given to this poor sot, who is dumped on by just about everyone for no other reason than loving Giselle to distraction? This is the absolute truth here: he’s named Hilarion, Latin for “cheerful, happy.” Ouch! ;)
Which brings us to a slightly more light-hearted perspective on the ballet’s mythology, as presented by my companion. While describing the story to my housemate, the Wilis were explained: women who had died before marriage, frequently of grief, and who enjoyed dancing far too much. This caused my companion to exclaim in exasperated amusement that he couldn’t believe how irresponsible the peasants were at preventing Wili-dom! Think about it: here’s a girl who loves dancing, and who we already know is frail. There’s a young man she’s got the hots for, who loves her back. What to do? GET THOSE KIDS TO THE VILLAGE PRIEST!!
Heh. Okay, so I’m easily amused. :)
Okay, so there was one other remarkable feature at the ballet. Frankly, I have no idea how to politely describe this, but my companion noticed it also, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just me, and this is my best effort at remaining discreet. :) So: both lead male dancers wore leotards with tops that ended at the hips. This meant it was easy to notice they both had truly excellent derrieres… and they apparently both “dressed left.” This may have been as noticeable as it was due to a “dance belt,” which I’ve been informed is the correct term for that article of apparel. Either way, I shall say no more except to state they were both unequivocally fine looking! :)
Oh! Can’t forget this part: there were several points in the dancing that were truly breathtaking. For example, there’s a sort of leaping step where the male dancer leaps straight up into the air, sort of neatly swirls his feet back and forth, and lands again in the same spot he started from. The dancer playing Albrecht was Maykel Solas the night I was there, and he did this leap beautifully and repeatedly during the scene where the Wilis are trying to dance him to death. After he had performed it perfectly about four times, the audience applauded a bit for his skill. He didn’t stop, though… and after he’d performed the step another four or five times, the audience applauded again, this time with several admiring calls. Astonishingly… he kept going! I wasn’t counting, but he must have managed nearly 15 or 20 of those beautiful, perfect leaps. Amazing.
Hilarion’s dancer, Maximo Califano, also deserves admiring mention for his astonishingly graceful and repeated high leaps — while staying in character and casting anguished looks to the pitiless Wili Queen — during his scene with the Wilis dancing him to death. Both men impressed me tremendously with their elegant and effortless-looking dancing. Finally, Gabay as Giselle had some gorgeous dancing too — as well as a very affecting and creepy scene where Giselle is going mad. The graceful fluidity of Gabay’s usual dancing really highlighted the slight stiffness and staggering as Giselle re-enacted her now-lost happiness with her beloved, and finally collapsed in grief.
I made sure my companion had a chance to read the ballet’s synopsis before we went, and the story was laid out in the program as well. I find that really improves the experience, to know what’s going on in the story. Interestingly, one of my housemates asked how ballet stories might be effectively translated to modern day — especially since we no longer believe in the US that noble and peasant may never marry, or that girls are terminally prone to both frailty and frivolity.
My thought was that the class issue might be effectively re-framed as a race and/or age issue in order to preserve that sense of taboo between the lovers — say, Albrecht as a rich older white man seducing an underage, poor immigrant girl of another race. Further, instead of Albrecht being affianced to a more high-born lady, I’d suggest making him already married — again, to maintain that sense of social opprobrium for his deception of Giselle. The ghostly Wilis of the second act could probably remain fairly intact, though, since there are many people who still believe in both ghosts and an afterlife. I’m not sure I’d have Giselle forgive him, though… guess I’m not as kind-hearted as she. ;)