And You Thought Ballet Was All About The Girl: A Criticism of Giselle

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(If you’re not familiar with the romantic ballet Giselle, you may want to get a quick wiki update or even watch a clip from the full ballet before reading the following criticism.)

Giselle isn’t really about Giselle at all. Sure, she’s the most enviable character—in the story and in the ballet. In the story, she’s a beautiful, naïve, and fragile village girl caught between the advances of two suitors: Hilarion and Loys. In the ballet, she allows a ballerina to tackle a role that requires portraying an entire wealth of emotions from innocence to joy to madness, and compassion. However, taking an objective glimpse at the story, beyond the breathtaking variations performed by the title character, clarifies the role of Giselle and other female characters in the ballet. As articulated by Evan Alderson in “Ballet as Ideology”, “When we are moved by the beauty of something, it is difficult to see it also as expressing a specific social interest. In particular, classic works of art that have a continuing presence in our culture seem to escape any ideological entrapments of their moment of creation.” And so it is for Giselle. The beauty of the choreography, music, and performers maintains the potential for viewers to overlook the evidence of clear gender roles within the ballet. Female characters in the ballet Giselle exist mainly in relation to the men in their lives and display few other personal motivations—making it a tale based solely on the motivations and machinations of male characters in the story.

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At the time Giselle debuted, the world of ballet was not all beauty and art. In “Giselle, Madness, and Death,” S.P. Wainright highlights some of the darker sides of the performance world where ballerinas were “openly prostituted by the Paris Opera administration.” Rich, wealthy men belonging to an aristocratic organization known as the Jockey Club would watch such performances and select mistresses from among the dancers. If a man saw a dancer and desired her, he would have her—the dancer had little say in the matter. Through this knowledge, one can draw a comparison between the characters of Giselle and this aspect of the ballet world at the time. “From this perspective,” says Wainright, “Albrecht, the aristocratic Lothario, symbolizes a typical rakish member of the Jockey Club.” And Giselle symbolizes any of the dancers who suffered as a result of this structure.

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Ballet isn’t the only art form to place women in a particular category. Novels, music, films, and popular culture—all have had a role in keeping female characters as ineffectual plot devices. Even today, where one would think the progress of a culture would adapt such roles to fit the times, women in films die repeatedly for no more reason than the sake of the plot. This fact isn’t to shame filmmakers or even to cast a dark shadow over the beautiful history of ballet. We have to remember the beliefs, the rights, and wrongs of the past to prevent such mistakes from happening in the future.

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