Love. Betrayal. Forgiveness.
Giselle is one of the most romantic story ballets of all time. The narrative, music, and choreography are so compelling, it leaves audiences transformed. A force within that story are the Wilis, otherworldly women who haunts the forest at night and makes men dance to death (more on that below).
Giselle is a ballet in two acts that tells the story of a young peasant girl named Giselle who falls in love with a nobleman disguised as a peasant named Albrecht. However, it is revealed that Albrecht is engaged to another woman and, in her grief, Giselle dies of a broken heart and her spirit joins the Wilis, who are ghosts of maidens who were betrayed by their lover and died before their wedding day.
Look what you made me do
In Slavic folklore, there is a type of nymph known as a “wila”, which can be described as a blend of ghost and fairy. These entities are said to exist in a realm between the living and the afterlife, and possess characteristics of both fairies and elves due to their captivating beauty and deadly nature.
Throughout the ballet, the Wilis are portrayed as ethereal and otherworldly, dancing in the moonlight in the forest. They are also depicted as vengeful, seeking to punish unfaithful men. In Stiefel and Kobborg’s re-imagining, the fragility of the Wilis are characterized by a unique and determinable strength.
The Wilis in Giselle are compelling for several reasons. Firstly, their portrayal as vengeful spirits of young women who were betrayed in love, adds a layer of tragedy and sorrow to the story, evoking sympathy from the audience. They are FIERCE in a, “I get where you are coming from and I’m here for it” kind of way. Secondly, their ability to dance endlessly, luring men to their deaths with their beauty, adds a sense of supernatural and mysterious elements to the ballet. Additionally, the interaction of the Wilis with the main character Giselle, adds depth to the story, as Giselle is able to understand and empathize with the Wilis, despite their vengeful nature, as she too has been betrayed by Albrecht. Furthermore, The Wilis’ portrayal in the ballet serves as an allegory for the consequences of betrayal, and the idea that love can be so powerful that it transcends death.
Can’t fight the Seether (or can you?)
In Act II of Giselle, Albrecht comes to the forest to mourn Giselle’s death and is confronted by the Wilis, led by their queen Myrtha, who looks to force him to dance until he dies of exhaustion as punishment for his betrayal of Giselle. Despite his betrayal, Giselle still loves him and assists him in surviving the night. At sunrise, Giselle returns to her grave and Albrecht is left alone, but his life has been spared. In the end, Giselle finds peace through love and forgiveness.
Experience American Repertory Ballet’s Giselle and see the Wilis in action
Co-choreographed by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg, Giselle will make its American Repertory Ballet premiere at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center in March 2023. This celebrated and moving production had its world premiere at the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2012, and has since toured the globe.
Giselle will be performed at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center on Friday, March 3 at 7:00 pm, Saturday, March 4 at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm, and Sunday, March 5 at 2:00 pm. Tickets start at $25. For tickets, please visit NBPAC.
Beware the Wandering Wilas of Slavic Mythology Ancient Origins
“Look What You Made Me Do” by Taylor Swift
“Seether” by Veruca Salt
Give me the Wilis Playlist
The Giselle-inspired Spotify playlist was curated by you, our ARB family, from our various social media platforms. Take a listen and enjoy!
Photos: Harald Schrader Photography | Nanako Yamamoto