Who is Giselle? A poetry challenge with English National Ballet

Young Poets Network has once again teamed up with English National Ballet to bring you a tantalizing challenge based around Akram Khan’s new production of Giselle, a tale of love, betrayal and redemption.

Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan in rehearsals for Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

The story of Giselle is a classic romantic narrative – but there’s plenty in renowned choreographer Akram Khan’s new production to strike a chord with some of the biggest questions facing us in the 21st century – questions about identity, inequality and displacement.

In the original ballet, Giselle is a peasant girl who falls in love with a villager, who is actually a rich nobleman in disguise. Giselle is distraught when she discovers his true identity, and the First Act culminates in her death. In the Second Act, Giselle becomes a member of the Wilis, a group of ghostly young women who all died before their wedding day. The Wilis wreak their revenge upon any young men who cross their path by dancing them to death.

Akram Khan’s Giselle
Akram Khan’s interpretation of Giselle takes the romantic narrative of the original ballet, and shapes it to fit a contemporary context. Exploring themes of displacement and inequality, Khan’s Giselle depicts the hardships suffered by migrant workers, who don’t own any land or property, and who are cast out of society when hard times hit the factory they once worked in.

Tamara Rojo n rehearsals for Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo in rehearsals for Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

Act 1
Giselle is one of a community of migrant workers cast out of their jobs in a condemned garment factory. They seek entry to the place where the factory landlords live, beyond a high Wall, built to exclude them.

Giselle is in love with Albrecht, a member of the privileged class, who has disguised himself as an Outcast in order to woo her. When the Landlords arrive, expecting to be entertained by the Outcasts, Albrecht recognises his fiancée Bathilde among them, and tries to hide. But he is challenged as an impostor by Hilarion, an Outcast who also loves Giselle, and the two men fight. Bathilde’s father confronts Albrecht and he is forced to choose between the two women. When he submits and returns to Bathilde, Giselle is driven to madness. The Outcasts encircle Giselle, and when they move apart, her lifeless body is revealed. The Landlords retreat to safety beyond the Wall.

Act 2
In the wrecked and abandoned factory where Giselle and her female co-workers have laboured, and many have died, Albrecht confronts and condemns the Landlords. But he flees at the appearance of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (the Wilis are ghosts of the factory workers who seek revenge for the wrongs done to them in life). Myrtha summons Giselle into the realm of death and into the company of the Wilis.

Hilarion enters the factory to mourn Giselle. The Wilis surround him, demanding retribution for her death, and he is killed.

A photo by Andrea Boldizsar. unsplash.com/photos/1iP1dozVO8I

Albrecht returns, and he and Giselle are reunited on the threshold of life and death. Breaking the cycle of violence, Giselle forgives Albrecht and saves him from the vengeance of Myrtha. Giselle departs into death with the Wilis, and Albrecht, now an outcast from his own community, is left to carry the burden of his wrongdoing.

The origins of Giselle
The story of Giselle originated in the early nineteenth century, at a time when many writers and artists were preoccupied with the idea of the Gothic and the supernatural. In 1834, the German poet and essayist, Heinrich Heine, wrote about the Wilis in his treatise ‘On Germany’, describing them as “poor young creatures” in whose “dead feet, there still remains that passion for dancing which they could not satisfy during life”, who would then lure young men to dance to their deaths.

Heine’s description of the Wilis inspired poet and critic Théophile Gautier to create a ballet around this tale, with a tragic heroine at the centre – Giselle was born, and first performed in Paris in 1841.


Who is Giselle?
Our challenge to you is to create a poem focussing on identity as it is expressed in this new production of Giselle. The character of Giselle is a complex one, and has been shaped and redefined by the many different interpretations of the ballet over the past 175 years.

Giselle is a mercurial role, mutating from early innocence, to utter despair, to madness and disintegration, into dark power and otherworldly eeriness as a member of the Wilis. It’s a challenging character for one dancer to inhabit – and equally challenging for a poet to take on! But that’s exactly what we want you to do.

Think about the way Akram Khan’s production uses the device of the Wall to represent the stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. Walls, and whether or not to build them, is a particularly hot topic in global politics at the moment, and divisions of this sort are a recurring them in Giselle, as is that idea of the essentially imperfect nature of artificial, arbitrary divides.

Think about the divisions that go beyond the surface as well. Akram Khan’s production really brings to light Giselle’s inner contradictions and conflicts – caught between the real-world divides of class, wealth and poverty, but also the murkier, supernatural border zones between the living and the dead. Good and evil are not clear-cut here – and perhaps neither is Giselle herself. How could you represent this conflicted character in a poem?

split face

There are lots of brilliant examples of ‘identity’ poetry to help get you thinking about this. The Poetry Society’s SLAMbassadors competition (open for entries until 30 September) takes ‘identity’ as its theme every year  – you can catch up on all the 2015 SLAMbassadors winning performances via this Youtube playlist.

Foyle Young Poet Sophia Tait‘s poem ‘Mosaic Me‘ talks about a fractured, fragmented view of world and self:

The world is changed when seen through
A mirror, smashed and cracked. The view
Is broken. I can only see
A jigsaw puzzle;
Mosaic me.

I look into a broken face,
Patterned, lined across, like lace,
And now my eyes stare back at me,
Stare right back at
Mosaic me.

My bedroom is cracked straight through,
The walls, the floor, the windows too,
Yet when I look around I see,
A normal world. No
Mosaic me.

YPN challenge winner Eleanor Penny’s poem ‘a pair of hands for Rusalka‘ explores another tragic story which has similarly become another popular and influential romantic narrative, as well as a famous opera:

[…] her throat as whitely as a wishbone-open –
flesh was from it all
the pieces left for taking.

If he loved her ever it was boiled in his shell
with unspent sleep,
half-dead with distance.
Lamplight – heat the hollows of the leaves
as if it all were necessary
as if it were not summer
burnt itself triumphant on
what little yellowness was left.

The fruit is furled already for the beckon
of a broken leg,

for nothing is unnecessary, though she stands a miracle
of covered clockwork or
blanched and trembling as a wishbone:
                    curse god and banish his coincidence
to gloamed-out corners made for making morning in
 – for waking.

from ‘a pair of hands for Rusalka‘ by Eleanor Penny

If you want more ideas for creating your Giselle poem, or would like to explore the story of this production further, English National Ballet has produced a resource pack which outlines the full context of Giselle, its history, and the story of the current production. Download the resource pack here.

DSC_2114 B&W
Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan in rehearsals for Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

The winning poem will be specially printed in the Giselle programme for one performance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London.

Winning and commended poets will also have their poems published on the Young Poets Network and receive an exclusive Young Poet’s Network notebook, and other assorted poetry goodies.

How to Enter
This challenge is now closed. Follow the links at the side of the page to read the winning poems!

We’d like to thank our partners at English National Ballet for all of their support in helping to make this challenge possible.

Published September, 2016

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