Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Creole Giselle plucks the classic tale from rural Germany and places the plot in Louisiana. Although conceptualized by DTH co-founder Arthur Mitchell, the piece was choreographed by Frederic Franklin. It ultimately remains true to the historical version by Jean Coralli & Jules Perrot – but the performance by an entire cast of black dancers marked a progressive departure from prior stagings in the ballet world. Creole Giselle premiered in 1984 and won three Laurence Olivier Awards after its run at the London Coliseum, and the production was filmed for television in Denmark three years later.

Dance Theatre of Harlem released a recording of Frederic Franklin’s Creole Giselle – free until June 10, 2020 – as part of their DTH On Demand program, an excellent dance at home resource amidst Covid-19 social distancing. The show is just under 90 minutes without intervals.

Current interpretations of the ballet include Dada Masilo’s Giselle, set in South Africa and also performed by a cast of black dancers – as well as Akram Khan’s Giselle on English National Ballet.

A young woman kneels and clutches the hem of a noblewoman's dress
Giselle (Virginia Johnson) clutches the skirt of Bathilde (Theara Ward) in DTH’s Creole Giselle.
Photo credit: Dance Theatre of Harlem

Creole Giselle Review

Act I

The ballet opens with a buzz in the air, as the townspeople merrily greet each other in their finest clothes and children dance in a small square. Hilarion (Lowell Smith) gifts two pheasants to Giselle’s family, which thoroughly impresses her mother Madame Berthe; but Giselle (Virginia Johnson) reserves her affection for Albert (Eddie J. Shellman).

Johnson takes upon the title role of Giselle with the requisite innocence and sweetness, jumping with a gentle, airy quality. Meanwhile, Shellman pursues her: grabbing her hand, sidling up next to her on a bench and gently lifting her chin. At one point, Giselle glissades across the stage, holding a flower to determine if Albert’s love is true in a petal plucking game of ‘He loves me, he loves me not.’ Albert fixes the outcome, presents it to Giselle and tosses it away with a flourish.

To the most modern day viewers, especially those that are happily living in loungewear during Covid-19 lockdown, even the clothing worn by the farming community looks very nice: bright colored dresses, collared shirts with buttons and perhaps a pair of suspenders. But when the noblemen arrive with their long-tailed coats and Bathilde swans in with her impractically long cream colored dress with a train, the disparity between the two groups becomes apparent.

The film clearly showcases Hilarion’s triumphant smirk when he exposes Albert as Bathilde’s betrothed. We also see Giselle’s stunned disbelief. Shunned, she falls to the ground and rises wobbly like a foal. Her pantomime is interspersed with short shots of stately Myrta (Lorraine Graves), Queen of the Wilis. Giselle clutches her side as she woodenly dances and trembles, then she collapses one final time as Albert reaches out to embrace her – all in all, a relatively tame version of Giselle’s death.

A man kneels before a woman in front of a line of ballerinas in Giselle
Lorraine Graves at Myrta and Lowell Smith as Hilarion dance downstage of the Wilis in Creole Giselle.
Photo credit: Dance Theatre of Harlem

Act II

Mud burbles and mist rolls into the swampy graveyard. Hilarion comes to rest at Giselle’s grave, where Wilis with waist-length white veils chase him away. Myrta’s veil falls past her knees, as she floats across the stage in bourrées. The veil disappears, but she retains her delicate nature – until she fiercely denies the repeated requests to spare Albert’s life.

Albert shook off warnings from his friend to leave the haunted bayou, and he dances with Giselle’s spirit by her tombstone. The camerawork cleverly shows how he feels her ghostly presence; and their duet shows that Giselle forgives Albert for his deception. His repentance at her grave, and just before she died, earned him a pardon for his reprehensible behavior.

Hilarion perishes at the command of Myrtha, but the reunited pair make a grand plea for Albert’s life. Albert’s soaring jumps refuse to move the Queen of the Wilis, as do Giselle’s tender gestures; and he collapses, while carrying out his sentence of dancing to death. When the dawn glints gold on the horizon, the couple realize that Giselle’s love has saved Albert from his fate. The two share a brief good-bye and Giselle peacefully returns to her grave, leaving Albert to mourn.

Star Rating:

Creole Giselle is a pretty adaptation of Giselle, which shows off the artistic and technical ability of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s performers. The costumes and sets are lovely, and the filmed recording adds a few special effects that enhance the second act. (Unfortunately, even streaming at 1080p, it looked blurry compared to current films.) And watching an all-African American cast perform the work is a treat in and of itself.

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Have you seen Creole Giselle by Dance Theatre of Harlem – or any other versions of the classic ballet? Let us know about it in the comments section below.

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