Giselle is a classical ballet phenomenon, with a relatively simple story that has stood the test of time with unwavering popularity for 181 years. The story of love, betrayal, madness, death, revenge and forgiveness has only two powerful acts.
Naturally, the title role is the most famous of the work, having been created especially for Carlotta Grisi. However, there are other moments for great ballerinas to shine, especially in the role of Myrtha, the Queen of Willis.
Considered “a gift” to ballerinas, Myrtha is a technically challenging and almost frightening character. Cold, sovereign, and cruel, Myrtha leads an army of souls of vengeful maidens like her. Ruthless with men, it symbolizes for some “the monsters we become when we cannot forgive or forget – when we abandon mercy”, the opposite of Giselle.
The story of the peasant, as we know, was created to contextualize the drama of the second act, the most important of the ballet. Inspired by the poem written in 1828 by Victor Hugo – Fantôme (Ghosts) – in turn, it quotes a popular German legend, about young virgins who die before their marriages (usually after betrayals by their loved ones) and whose souls roam the forest between midnight and dawn. If they find a man, they make him dance to death.
Then, trembling, she leads him to the fatal dance,
To the ethereal chorus in the fluttering shadow;
And on the gray horizon, the moon is wide and pale,
And the rainbow of nights dyed with opal reflection
The cloud with silver fringes.
The construction story of “who is” Myrtha has never been explored, but there are a number of curious ones. After all – QUEEN – would it be literal? How did she gain that lead?
“Her story isn’t told clearly anywhere I looked. There are theories that she is the queen because she was queen or nobility in life. Or is it because her death was the worst? Or is she meaner than the others and has put herself in the lead? Did it have a vote? Is she the oldest?”, says Cyndi Oliveira on the blog O Meu Repertório. The even more curious part is the version by dancer Nora Esteves: “Myrna Jamus, a very knowledgeable ballet teacher – said that Nora Esteves said that Myrtha was the queen because the curse started with her”, explained Cyndi. Amazing, no?
In the movie Dancers, Leslie Bowne plays Myrtha as another ex-lover dumped by Albrecht (Mikhail Baryshnikov), but it’s a bit of a bold suggestion. What she carries as a scepter is a myrtle twig (for remembrance) and it is no wonder that, once again referring to Cyndi, she recalls the word myrtle, suggesting the true origin of her name (but not the title).
The fact is that Myrtha, unlike pure Giselle, does not find the peace of forgiveness in the beyond and it is the power of the peasant’s love that saves the repentant Albrecht (poor Hilarion, who only told the truth, had a less noble fate than death under the control of the Willis).
Myrtha’s role creates the opportunity to have two great ballerinas on the same night, with the Queen opening the second act – alone – powerfully, unforgettable. Several ballerinas alternate roles in the same season. The most famous performer of all time is the great Maya Plisetskaya. She never danced Giselle, only Myrtha. They say that precisely because she suffered heartbreak before debuting, creating a superstition. Officially she said she was never interested in the peasant girl, only in the mysterious Queen. Her performance, alongside Galina Ulanova, was captured on film. Pure magic.