Preparing a Character – Giselle

Giselle was added to the California Ballet repertoire in 1978. Then Ballet Master Marius Zirra, from Romania, staged it on Ballerina Marlene Jones (Wallace). Marlene recalls that, "Working on Giselle was one of the most intense rehearsal periods I’ve ever had. Marius was a very intense person and it was a difficult role.”

Marlene Wallace

Marlene Jones as Giselle

Following Marlene, former CBC Prima Ballerina Denise Dabrowski stepped into the tortured heroine’s pointe shoes, making her own indelible mark on the role. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Denise, now the company’s Regisseur, as she shared with us her love for the ballet, her experience preparing for the most dramatic role in all ballet repertoire, and how she’s passed the torch onto the next generation of dancers.

Giselle Chie Kudo

CBC: What do you think is the main allure of Giselle?


DD: The timelessness of true love. Love that goes beyond the grave. And how much you see the history of ballet in the ballet itself. And, it’s all about dancing! Giselle is a girl who loves to dance, and her mother doesn’t want her to dance because she has a weak heart. So, she really dies of a broken heart, and also from dancing. And, the men who visit the Wilies in the second act are danced to death.


For dancers, it’s a ballet we’re really drawn to. Also, it’s so dramatic and so romantic. For the dancer who dances Giselle, it’s the equivalent of playing Hamlet for a Shakespearean actor. It’s the pinnacle of what you can do onstage as a ballerina.


CBC: How do you think Giselle is still relevant today?


DD: I think it’s kind of a period piece, but I also think that if it’s done really well, with integrity by the performers, it still speaks to people today: How you feel when you fall in love, how you feel when you’re jilted in love, how you forgive, and how human that makes us.


What part of Giselle or Albrecht do you see in your own relationships? I think every person that comes and sees the ballet will connect with it in a different way.



Marius Zirra staging Giselle, Act 2

CBC: What is your story of dancing Giselle for the first time?


DD: My history with Giselle is one of the treasures of my life. When I was 17, Marius Zirra [rehearsed] Giselle’s choreography on me because our ballerina at the time, Marlene Jones, was dancing with another company, and was going to come back to do the shows. And, of course I didn’t perform it that year.


Giselle87 Dabrowski 2

The following year, again Marlene danced it, but we had more shows and I got to do a matinee performance. And then, a couple years after that, I got to really have Giselle as my own. Marius’ version has always been so close to me.


I suffered heartbreak the last time I was supposed to do it. I was injured right before we went to the theater, and I was unable to perform it. And, now that I’ve staged it twice for CBC, it’s so satisfying to recall in my mind Marius’ words And then, year’s later, Charles Bennett and Paul Koverman put their stamp on it and I can hear how they coached me in it, and I’m trying to get all that information out to the dancers that I’m working with so that the heritage of our original Giselle continues. 


It’s  one of the most meaningful ballets to me that I’ve ever gotten to dance. It actually even makes me a little bit sad when I work on it because I miss dancing it.


Marlene Mad

CBC: Tell us about the “mad scene.” It’s one of the most dramatic scenes a ballerina can dance. How did you prepare for that scene?


DD: I’ve been coached so many times, so many different ways for that scene. I think I never really did a good job. I think how I would do it now, how I would prepare for it now is very different from how I did it when I was younger. I think it sometimes take a more mature dancer to make a really good Giselle. 


But, Marius did a really wonderful setup for the mad scene where the moment [Giselle] loses her mind, everyone else on stage freezes. She goes through many of the memories that she had, and what she felt, and what she’s thinking. Nobody else moves, so you know that it’s all in her mind, until a certain point when everybody comes back and they are involved in what’s going on before she actually dies. It’s really a passionate, awesome scene to rehearse and to perform and to study. Like I said, I think I would approach it differently every time, if I were to do it again.


CBC: How do you prepare you dancers for a ballet that’s this dramatic?


Denise d

DD: Either they come with their hearts open, or I have to pry their heart open. But, they have to realize who inside of them is Giselle. Which part of their soul, their own personality, is Albrecht? They have to bring that up into the rehearsal room, so that I can help them shape what’s most clear about where they come from, to present the characters.


I’m working now with Chie Kudo, our Ballerina, and she has not done as many dramatic roles. Although, every year, she’s done a new story ballet with us and she’s grown, and grown in her interpretation of roles, not just the absolute perfection of her dancing. So, I have to claw at her, and push her to reach inside of herself and explore what part of Giselle already exists inside of her, and not be afraid to experiment. 


It’s more experimenting than just doing the steps. I can set the choreography, but I want to bring out from her psyche what works best for her. And I know all the coaches I had did the same with me - helped to find the Giselle inside of me and to make that clear and make that true.


CBC: From your experience dancing and setting this ballet, what kind of man is Albrecht?


Denise e

DD: Oh, that’s cool because the male dancer who plays Albrecht will bring to it a couple of different choices. Albrecht is often played as a jerk, a cad, a playboy who has taken on the demeanor and the clothing of a peasant in order to woo this pretty girl, Giselle. He takes advantage of her. Sometimes he, in the middle of that, has a change of heart and realizes how how much he truly, truly loves her. And sometimes the men will play it not so much, so that they stay more aloof and were really toying with her.


The Albrechts that I had the honor to dance with, I think we always worked together where we did find a moment where, oh my gosh, Albrecht is truly in love with Giselle. He’s completely sorry that he enticed her into his world, fully knowing the he is engaged to marry another woman, and feels so guilty about his death.


I can remember the look in the eyes of my Albrechts to my Giselle, knowing how sensitively they moved from, “Yeah, this is a fun girl, let’s have some fun,” to, oh my gosh, so much love and so stuck in the world that they set up for themselves. And I prefer that characterization.


CBC: What’s your best piece of advice in helping an artist interpret a role that you’ve previously performed?


DD: What I try to do is demonstrate to them what versions are there to choose from. I don’t want to make a copy of Denise as Giselle. I want to help each of the dancers find their own way. I’m not afraid to show them exactly what I did, and why I made the artistic choice that I made. But, I want to leave it free for them to make their own choices. Then I help shape them. But, by the time they are ready to go onstage, I have nothing more to say to them but, “Merde!”


I was always frightened when I was about to go onstage. I remember standing right behind the door that Giselle opens to go onstage right at the beginning of the ballet. I think I was 18 when I did it the first time, and that’s way too early to dance a really, truly developed Giselle. I knew I was terrified, and I knew I wasn’t going to be great. Charles Bennett, probably my closest mentor from the California Ballet Company, who was our Principal Choreographer for a long time, said, “Trust the music. Listen to the music. Let the music carry you. Let the audience fade into the background. They’re going to want to be sucked into your world, so let the music and let the character transport you, and the audience will be right there with you. No worries.”



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