• Zoe Phillips

"Creole Giselle" and the power of rewriting ballet

In 1984, Mitchell and his cast made a powerful statement on the duality of classical ballet’s potential

Dance Theatre of Harlem

It’s said that every theater is inhabited by at least one ghost, and contrary to legends propagated by Halloween, these ghosts do not like the dark. Thus, when the curtain falls and a theater’s house empties, an employee will leave a light — a ghost light — to burn onstage until the performers return. Across the world, ghost lights have remained on and untouched for months. But the lives of performers continue offstage, each day adding pressure to find performance spaces on digital platforms. What happens when the ghost lights keep burning and we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes?

Many ballet stories are weird. Swans falling in love, dolls being mistaken for humans and the Christmas-time obsession with a nut-cracking device all pass as normal. We accept their quirks because their music and choreography are about more than their stories. Adolphe Adam’s “Giselle” is different. “Giselle” has an awesome story. Arthur Mitchell might have known this more than anyone. 


Albrecht is a womanizing prince who pretends to love Giselle, a peasant, while he is actually engaged to be married. When she learns of his trickery she dies of heartbreak and swiftly joins an army of female ghosts, here called willis, dedicated to the destruction of all men who cross their path. When Albrecht comes looking for Giselle’s grave (a little too late, don’t you think?), the kingdom of female afterlife forces him to dance until his own death — it’s a delicious ending to a beautiful show. Originally premiered in Paris in 1841, the ballet enjoyed immediate success, eventually travelling across Europe and into America in 1846. 


The show is easily one of the most-performed productions in ballet today, but it’s also quite symbolic of a racially oppressive past. The willis dance in white dresses that match a historically white skin uniform that excluded any dancers of color long past its 19th century premiere. 


Arthur Mitchell’s “Giselle” is different. First created in 1984 for his all-black company Dance Theatre of Harlem, the production eventually won a Laurence Olivier Award for its ingenious handling of history, ballet and American art. Mitchell enlisted Frederic Franklin to restage the classic story using his cast of all-black dancers. Franklin abandoned the show’s original Rhineland setting and moved his production to the American South on a farm in Louisiana. He kept the choreography true to the 1841 original and maintained Adolphe Adam’s masterful music. They named their new show “Creole Giselle.”


This past weekend, DTH streamed a 1987 recording of “Creole Giselle” on YouTube. The New York Times named the show one of “Six things to do at home this weekend,” and the recording accrued over 7,000 views in one day. Though blurry and at times darkly lit, the show boasted crisp technique from its dancers and its refreshing design shone as an artistic tour de force. 


Watching the video, I wondered: Why haven’t more companies taken Mitchell as an example for themselves? Marketing departments often complain of audiences who feel disconnected from classical ballet stories — what do we have in common with a German peasant, a Russian swan or a lifelike dancing doll? These feelings of separation can be even greater for people of color who have been excluded from such shows on the basis of historically white casting and in some ballets, problematic portrayals of Eastern cultures. Mitchell knew this because he and his dancers had lived it, but he did not allow the outer image of “Giselle” to push him away. Stripped of costumes and casting choices, every ballet to have survived so many years tells omnipresent stories of love and loss. Often referred to as the Hamlet of ballet, “Giselle”’s dazzling music and dreamy dancing sets a golden standard of such emotions, and there is power and intention in DTH’s choice to perform the work in full: Black dancers, and all dancers of color, are equally able to display the universal facets of the human condition that “Giselle” and every one of its 19th century counterparts explore. Such themes do not belong to one era or one people, yet their current packaging can sometimes make it seem to be so. 


What’s stopping other major ballet companies from reconsidering their 19th century reproductions? Could “Swan Lake” happen on the shores of Lake Michigan? Wouldn’t “Le Corsaire” work well on a Navy ship? Perhaps “Coppelia”’s doll factory could be set in industrial-age America. More recently than Mitchell, “Final Bow for Yellowface” author Phil Chan told Megan Fairchild in an interview in May that he’s been working on a new version of “La Bayadere” set in 1930s Hollywood rather than an ill-represented India. The new approach, Chan said, “makes that story about us instead of them.” When Mitchell moved DTH’s “Giselle” to the Antebellum South in 1984, he was doing just that: Through a simple set change, his show could tell the stories that belonged to his dancers and not the all-white group from 150 years prior. 


The pragmatic answers to these questions is money — it takes millions to spearhead a new production of a full-length ballet, and Chan cited this fact in the reason it’s taking a while to get his ideas on the move, especially as companies bleed amid a pandemic. I would argue, however, that the cost would be well worth the goal of revitalizing this art form. The audiences and dancers of today are not the same group of the 19th century. They come from different backgrounds and have very different stories to tell. As the ballet industry emerges from social distancing guidelines that pushed arts performances onto increasingly accessible platforms, the diversity of these audience backgrounds has the potential to increase even more. In 1984, Mitchell and his cast made a powerful statement on the duality of classical ballet’s potential — “Creole Giselle” is progressive yet traditional, historical yet modern, and keenly told through the eyes of the artists actually onstage. In 2020, it might be helpful to remember his lesson in our own considerations of ballet’s past, present and future.

This article was originally published in The Michigan Daily on June 10, 2020 as part of the series "Ghost lights and Instagram likes"

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Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!