More than 200 years after Giselle was created it remains one of the most well-known ballets of all time. It is the Romantic story of a peasant girl who falls in love for the first time only to face a double betrayal when she discovers that her heart’s duet is not a peasant but a noble and engaged to another woman! She goes mad with grief and dances herself to death. On the night of her funeral her soul is snared by a the queen of the wilis, spirits of jilted girls who died before their weddings, and made to join them in killing any man they come across by dancing them to exhaustion and death. Her grief-stricken beaux visit’s her grave and falls into their snare, but Giselle’s love is still pure and true and she uses the full force of it protect him until sunrise and break the power of the wilis queen, sending the spirits, and herself, to their final rest nobly leaving him to marry his original fiancé.
The story is all well and good for a Romantic audience but in the 21st century, after feminism and postmodernism, we have very different considerations for our stories and characters. In late 2015 I proposed the idea of postmodern adaptation of the story to my brother Caleb and after some discussion we started conceiving this project.
Giselle is written in style that promotes a sweeping romantic idea at the expense of treating the characters like real people and disregarding their plausible feelings. Why does the boy think it’s okay to cheat on women? If Giselle just had her heart ripped out for the first time why would she immediately forgive and rescue him when his actions caused her to DIE? And what about the important side characters who unceremoniously disappeared without any character development at all? These questions motivated us to refashion details and themes of the narrative to further explore the characters as organic people and the idea of maturing and finding forgiveness and resolution through adversity.
My delightful task has been to visually realize the world and costumes of Giselle. Through much research, many discussions, and a lot of drawing I’ve created a series of 29 costumes for the ballet. It has been my pleasure conceptualize these characters and clothes and moreover to tell stories through them and provide a visual subtext to reinforce the themes of the central narrative. I am intensely proud and hope you enjoy this visual iteration of Giselle.
Period and Setting
Giselle was originally set in a vaguely medieval period in the rural German Rhineland where vineyards are the main economic venture. I toyed with leaving it there or bringing it to a more contemporary period like the 1920’s but both presented problems for merging historical accuracy and functionality.
(Peter Paul Rubens, Braun & Schneider, C.D. Gibson, Erte, and Alphonse Mucha)
Caleb suggested that it be kept in a “once upon a time” period where there was more freedom to invent and fuse the best ideas of both worlds. So I came up with the idea of a medieval setting reinterpreted through a roughly Art Nouveau lens, bringing together the middle ages and the turn of the century styles.Aspects of traditional German peasant garb were incorporated to lend a sense of place to the style. As the designs progressed I also pulled several aspects from the original designs by Paul Lorimer and the, arguably, more ubiquitous designs of Alexander Bennois to pay homage and acknowledge the history of the ballet itself.
Flowers and Butterflies
When coming to this project I read a synopsis of the ballet was immediately reminded of Aesop’s Fable of the Rose and the Butterfly, wherein a butterfly promises undying love to a rose, then leaves and cheats on her with all the other flowers. When she confronts him he haughtily tells her it is natural for him to roam but she has to remain faithful. Initially I was really disgusted with the Giselle’s leading man and I decided to weave this cultural idea of expectations of fidelity into the costumes by basing the women’s on flowers and the men’s on butterflies. Soon after I felt vindication when my research revealed that Giselle is rife with flower symbolism.
The common everyday people adhere to the basic aesthetic themes set out for the show, everyone is individual with small cues to designate age and station such as wearing an apron, the length of a man’s trousers, or wide collars. Caleb was a big proponent for individuality on all levels of the show. From a story telling perspective it made the most sense to him to give personalities to all of the characters so as to better plot their reactions to each other, which is exactly how I was approaching designing the main characters so we extended that expression of personality to the secondary characters. We brainstormed the basis of the characters and then I took to the next step with their visual design and solidified their personalities with a written breakdown of each character which you will see if click into their pictures. Caleb also suggested that we name the secondary characters after the artists who created the original Giselle, adding another layer of homage to them.
Rich people are always fun to design for because they can afford extravagance. Historically, when you have money you don’t have to work and you would flaunt that fact with your clothes. In this context the hair is higher, the sleeves are puffier, the collars are wider, and the trains are longer (but also made to be pinned up to allow for dancing). The nobles are a more cosmopolitan lot; fashion forward and moving away from traditional modes of dress.
The second act contains the most change in the characters and their critical moments. It is also where, narratively we made the most changes. Instead of immediately trying to rescue Albrecht from the wilis when he visits her grave she is to consumed by her hurt and does nothing at first, completely bent to the will of the their Queen Myrtha. Then Bathilde suddenly emerges, she is innocent and not a target of the willis but still powerless against them. She begs Giselle to spare Albrecht while Myrtha spurs her otherwise. Finally Giselle finds the love within her to forgive him and breaks Myrtha’s power over her, fending off the wilis until the sun rises and they must fade away. Hilarion’s spirit reappears to comfort Giselle’s as she sadly bids farewell to the living and in that moment she realizes what Hilarion felt for her all along, Albrecht realizes the full cost of his actions, and all of them are struck by what now can never be. Albrecht is profoundly changed. He looks to Bathilde who gives him back his ring, she was able to overcome her own hurt to do the right thing and rescue him but she will be manipulated no longer.
Mytha Queen of the Dead
Myrtha was crucially important but particularly difficult to design for. Most of the difficulty came from trying to figure out her backstory. Willis come from the same root as vampires and are defined as a type of air spirits but there wasn’t any reason for them to take on a posse of the dead to kill unsuspecting humans so we had to question Myrtha’s motives and just what exactly she was. Was she a death goddess? Was she like a vampire collecting victims to fuel her existence? A vengeful spirit seeking retribution for being jilted herself or a friend who was jilted? Was she more of a zombie or a dead person herself? Where did her power come from? All of these classifications could have different bearings on her design. I finally settled on a fairy interpretation.
It seemed to make the most sense in that Myrtha doesn’t make sense. She’s too focused and specific in her attentions to be a death goddess, she didn’t seem needy or demonic enough to be a vampire, a spirit was too emotionally unstable (as well as weaker and less commanding than I wanted her), and zombie or dead person were nice for aesthetic reasons but didn’t explain her powers. Whereas fairies operate on a different moral level than humans, they are capricious, their powers have ambiguous sources, and we don’t ever completely understand them. This helped me pare down the design elements to make the costume more functional and keep ideas that were central to the character, opting for a tall slim silhouette and floral symbolism.
Wilis are the souls men and women who were jilted and died before their weddings. They come from all over the world and have been collected through the centuries. Myrtha calls them to dance at night in different places and their souls and bodies come to do her bidding. Over time parts of them succumb to rot or are lost but are replaced by plants and the bones of people and animals of the locale they come to, for they must always have a body to dance with. The older a wili becomes the more of its identity is lost and it is stripped down to a mere soul trapped within an assemblage of foreign parts.
(Stage 1, 2, and 3 wilis)
Caleb wanted all the wilis to have individual costumes, different body types, and to be more like zombies than pristine spirits. He was keen on the idea of dirty feet from dancing barefoot and working grey and wear up into the costumes. In the original ballet they are much more spirit-like, figuring out Myrtha’s design and supernatural classification were key for coming to grips with how to design these dead people. After much experimenting I rationalized them into the creatures described above, mixing spirit, zombie, and nature together. In the original ballet they wanted to make their costumes as diaphanous as possible, it also called for different ethnicities including 3 German women, two French women, a Bayadere (Hindu temple dancer), and an Odalisque (a servant to a harem) the rest were unspecified; I imitated both ideas.
While the wilis are not properly named, and they are losing their humanity in their deceased state, I think of them like the Merry Murderesses of the Cook County Jail, with monikers to briefly describe them.
This has been a lengthy project with the first unassuming sketches beginning in mid October 2015 and ending with the final painting on October 12 2016. This series has been immensely special to me and I am intensely proud of its completion.