First performed in Paris in 1841 with ballerina Carlotta Grisi, Giselle is one of the oldest continually performed ballets. If that doesn’t ring a bell, ghosts doing the arabesque chug should jog your memory.
It’s a haunting story drawn from dreams, poetry, and legends about Wilis (pronounced Wil-eez), angry virgin ghosts who died before their wedding night. Giselle the peasant girl with a weak heart falls in love with Albrecht, a man in disguise. When she discovers he’s a dishonest duke and engaged to a glamorous woman of his own social rank, she goes mad and dies of a broken heart.
“Giselle is all about the story,” says Ariana Gonzalez, who dances the role of Giselle in City Ballet of San Diego’s run this weekend at the Spreckels Theater. “It still resonates, and in the Pas de Deux with Albrecht, the music and choreography take me to another place. It’s surreal.”
Having a female protagonist was groundbreaking in the 1840s and Giselle was one of the first full-length ballets danced on point. Shoes were softer than they are now, but allowed a dancer to create floating movements.
For City Ballet’s performance, Gonzalez partners with Iago Breschi, a tall and lean new company member.
“This is his first time dancing Albrecht,” Gonzalez said. “He’s young and wonderful and has so much natural ability. My dad (Steven Wistrich, the company artistic director) came in and coached us for Act II. They worked on the character and emotional side, and we can’t wait to see him.”
The second act takes place at night in a misty forest, where the Wilis live. They wear white gowns and this White Act is where Giselle and Albrecht say goodbye.
“I’m lucky to dance this beautiful ballet,” Gonzalez said. “At the end it’s dawn, she realizes she’s saved his life, and the music gets me every time. She realizes she’ll never see him again.
“The first act is jovial, but the Wilis control the stage in Act II.”
As part of their curse, the Wilis must perform a difficult task. With one leg behind, they chug in unison. It’s also their warning to avoid deceptive men.
“There’s nothing more dramatic,” Gonzalez said with a deep breath. “When they appear and repeat the arabesque chug, it’s breathtaking. My husband Geoff (Gonzalez) dances Hilarion, the gamekeeper, and he’s their first victim.”
Megan Jacobs dances the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, on Friday and Saturday. Gonzalez takes the role of Myrtha on Sunday. Also alternating are Sumire Ito and Lucas Ataide as Giselle and Albrecht.
“We are all great friends,” Gonzalez said. “We want people to feel the story, to see the music through our dancing. Giselle is broken. Everyone has had their heart broken at some time. But Giselle is pure and she saves Albrecht. Her love for him is so strong, that even though he killed her, she forgives and saves him. There is beauty in that.”
Music is by Adolphe Adams, played by City Ballet Orchestra, with John Nettles conducting.
March 9 at 8 pm. March 10 at 8 pm. March 11 at 2 pm.
Spreckels Theater. 121 Broadway, San Diego.