Artistic Directors Mikelle Bruzina and Harald Uwe Kern. Photo by Kateryna Sellers 2023
The beauty of Giselle has haunted viewers for nearly 200 years. First performed in 1841 in Paris, with Carlotta Grisi as Giselle, the ballet was rooted in the lore of the Wilis — spirits of young brides who had died after heartbreak, and forced men to dance to their deaths — inspired by the work of Heinrich Heine, a German poet. As is true with any story that passes through generations of artists and performers, Giselle has evolved over the years. But what has remained constant, and entrancing, is the core of the Romantic masterpiece: love, betrayal, and redemption.
Artistic Directors Mikelle Bruzina and Harald Uwe Kern discuss their interpretations of the story, having danced and coached many roles from different perspectives over their careers.
What roles have you danced in Giselle?
MB: I have danced the role of Giselle. I have also danced the role of Mrythe, but not with Louisville Ballet. I have also done one of the lead Wilis in the corps de ballet, a villager and a friend — I think that’s about it. I was too small to be a court person or Bathilde or that kind of role!
HUK: All of them except Hilarion. Hilarion traditionally — and they did this until the 60s and 70s — had to have red hair and a red beard, because he had to be repulsive to Giselle. Because there’s no other reason she wouldn’t like him, besides that he was supposed to be older. He provides for her, he protects her, he’s in love with her.
Which was your favorite?
MB: Giselle is one of those roles that is kind of a landmark in a dancer’s career — it’s one of the great classics, and it’s a beautiful love story, so I really enjoyed exploring that role. The mad scene is always fun, to do something that’s not just happy, and expressing that side of you that’s not necessarily part of my nature, so it was a challenge to go in that direction. I have to say I really enjoyed Myrthe; it was an opportunity I didn’t think I would have … But I really did enjoy the role of Giselle the most. She’s happy, she loves to dance … and to be a part of a love story of course is always lovely.
HUK: Giselle as a role is probably the greatest acting role for the female dancer — I do not know a female who doesn’t dream of dancing Giselle once in her life. And Albrecht is so well constructed, too, that it’s just a joy to dance.
In your own words, what is Giselle about?
HUK: It is about true love, and forgiveness.
MB: Giselle is a love story. The whole reason she dies of a broken heart is feeling like she ultimately was betrayed by the love of her life. One can go back and forth about Albrecht’s intentions. I think he truly did love Giselle; I think he was trapped in his obligations being from a royal family … I think probably it was an arranged marriage with Bathilde, so this was his escape, to go hang out with the villagers. It’s a tragic love story, like they all are.
Do you think it’s more of a love story or a tragedy?
MB: It’s really both. She dies of a broken heart and at the end, Albrecht is left alone.
HUK: It’s more of a love story, I think — I mean it’s a tragedy, but it ends in harmony … She saves him, she forgives him, so that’s the ultimate love: sacrifice. So I wouldn’t call it a complete tragedy.
MB: It is a story about forgiveness as well. I suppose everyone is going to have a different take on it as well, you’re going to relate to it based on your life’s experiences. Some people might be very hateful of Albrecht — he’s a cad and he betrayed her and he deserved to be left alone at the end, there’s that viewpoint. Or poor Hilarion — I always feel very bad for him because he loves Giselle as well, and ends up losing her as well, but not really getting recognized for it.
HUK: When it comes to the story, there are many different interpretations, and it depends on the staging … is Albrecht a cad or is he really in love with her? It’s up to the interpretation of the dancer to a point. I always felt that he was in love with Giselle but his status didn’t allow him to be there. A scene [of the ballet] that’s omitted now is the forgiveness of Bathilde, his fiancé — she appears at the end of the second act and forgives him. I’ve seen versions where Albrecht dies of exhaustion, because some dancers feel he should be reunited at the very end.
When you’re coaching dancers in the roles, what’s the most important thing you want to communicate?
MB: It’s about telling the story. Yes, there’s steps that have to be taught … but, for me, it’s telling the story, and so every step has a meaning. Even how you walk, there’s meaning behind that. Are you sad, are you happy — how you look at who you’re dancing with, your relationship with all the other characters.
HUK: The acting. Definitely, it’s an actor’s piece, which story ballets are. We are actors and our medium is to dance — we’re not acrobats. The technique is very important; the stronger I am in my technique, the more focus I can put into my acting. The driving force behind the ballet is the acting and the emotions.
What is your favorite moment of the ballet?
MB: That’s a tough one … a pinnacle moment in the role of Giselle for me was the moment that she finds out Albrecht is who he is and is betrothed to another woman … that moment where everything changes from being happy and joyous and being in absolute love to her world just crumbling, and it’s ended as far as she can understand at that particular moment. Not necessarily my favorite, but I remember having a real moment there.
I really like the first act when it’s her first entrance out of the house and she’s looking for Albrecht. That whole scene it’s so iconic, too, because it’s leading up to when she picks the petals off the flowers and [they’re] being flirtatious, when they back into each other. Although this is something they do every day, they meet and they flirt — and this is probably not the first time that she’s counted the petals off of the daisy to find out whether he really loves her or not. It’s like this flirtatious thing, young love: innocent, pure, joyous love. That whole scene — it’s just so playful and innocent on her part.
HUK: [Being on stage, as Albrecht], when you’re lying on the ground, and Giselle comes over and helps him up. It’s just so real, so pure. Being on stage, not as Albrecht, maybe a peasant -– definitely the mad scene. I’ve been on stage and there’s not one dry eye on the stage except the people who aren’t supposed to cry, like the court.
Why does Giselle stand the test of time? Why is it a classic?
HUK: Because it’s timeless .. because [the story] just keeps happening. It’s very human, falling in love with someone you shouldn’t be in love with. … The heartbreak is just universal, and that’s what I think makes it timeless.
MB: Because it is a love story. [In] all the great classics, the music was written specifically for it, working alongside the choreographer, so the music tells the story, and the dancing tells the story, and you can’t help but be moved by what’s happening on the stage — because of what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, and what you’re feeling.
Giselle runs Nov. 10-12 at The Brown Theatre. Buy tickets at louisvilleballet.org