GISELLE – And the Legend of the Wilis

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

“It gave me the willies!” Ever wonder about the origin of the expression? It generally refers to internal physical responses sparked by sudden feelings of danger, perhaps a disturbing premonition, a 6th sense of immediate vulnerability. The reactions inspire all kinds of descriptions – chills up and down the spine, goose bumps, butterflies, the heebie-jeebies. These gut reactions and defense mechanisms reveal deep-rooted fears. Does the monster in the shadows know your secrets? In tales of gothic horror, the sensation of feeling one’s flesh crawl is a barometer for the presence of Evil. Whatever the specifics, someone or some-thing is lurking nearby and it’s more than just your colorful imagination. This out-of-nowhere rush of anxiety and quick surge of adrenalin can be sickening. The heart rate goes wild, the personal radar zooms to High, and a quick gasp of surprise might lead to a scream. Out of nowhere, you’ve got the willies. It’s different than getting “the creeps” – the type of jitters that accompany a brief encounter with a dangling spider or a creepy neighbor. Getting the willies is all about foreboding, a blast of dread indicating really bad news hovering beside you or around a loved one. In the movies, the ill-fated character might explain the interruption with, “Someone just stepped on my grave.” In Adolphe Adam’s GISELLE – opening this Saturday at San Francisco Ballet – such footfalls belong to an avenging spiritual sorority, the Wilis.

Click here to order tickets on-line: GISELLE

Photo, Erik Tomasson

LORENA FEIJÓO – as “Giselle”. Photo, Erik Tomasson

In Slavic mythology the Wilis are a glamorous group of the Undead – all of them young and pure about-to-be brides. In life, they enjoyed a common passion – they loved to dance. But somewhere between a festive engagement party and prior to or during the march down the aisle, each of their fiancés has betrayed them. Same old story: a guy with a fickle nature and another woman on the other side of town. When “Giselle” (the best dancer in the village, too bad she has this heart condition) learns that her supposed country-boy sweetheart is actually “Prince Albrecht” and saddled with an inevitable Marriage of State, the jilted girl sinks into madness and drops dead of a broken heart. And everyone in the village fears for the safety of her soul – because they know the legends of the Wilis. Ask anyone! The woods are full of them. Though she may have died in a state of grace and in spite of the cross that marks her grave – in these regions, folks know that Giselle will be snatched by the Wilis and nothing can prevent it. Eternity for this once so beautiful and graceful innocent will now be spent in seeking vengeance. That’s just the way it is. Any man who wanders into the domain of the Wilis between sundown and sun-up will be forced to dance himself to death. If the Wilis tire of him – as they will with the unfortunate “Hilarion” (Giselle’s mother wants this guy for her son-in-law) – the corps will simply pirouette the victim over a cliff to drown in the lake below.


The role of “Myrtha” is an amazing creation by the composer and his team of choreographers: Helgi Tomasson after Marius Petipa, Jules Perrot, and Jean Coralli. As the virtual Mother Superior/Ballet Mistress of the Wilis, Myrtha reflects a variety of cultural references and religious associations. In Act 2, her en pointe entrance and long-sustained glide across the stage is set to music that evokes a celestial dominion. The sweet Meditation of the solo violin is comparable to that within Massenet’s opera Thaïs and, in turn, its association with mystical realms, cloistered nuns, and the promise of perpetual beauty and peace. The scene takes place deep in the Bavarian woods. Myrtha uses sprigs of mistletoe to summon the Wilis. At this point and through the use of earthly greenery long-associated with pagan ritual, it’s as though the air is cleared of religious (particularly Catholic) sensibilities. The story-line now moves completely into the arena of magic and superstition – making plausible the existence of beautiful woodland nymphs who dance the night away and prey upon any male intruder.

Adam’s score expresses the bittersweet pain of ultimate longing and unrequited love. Myrtha can be seen as both Queen of the Wilis and the Goddess of Dance. She exercises the votresses in her charge. Remember, these girls wanted to dance long before their unfaithful fiancés came on the scene. Thus, their ensemble numbers (or rituals) celebrate perfect technique, order and discipline. On this night especially, the Wilis are performance-ready. A Prince and a Peasant will enter the forest, each seeking the grave of the newest arrival, Giselle. Such fools must die, of course! Myrtha orders Giselle to dance with Prince Albrecht until his heart bursts from exhaustion.

Giselle is just fresh from the grave. What’s left of her female wiles is enough to out-maneuver Myrtha’s command. She will dance with this man who broke her heart. But not too-fast/too-hard too soon. Eventually, Myrtha intervenes – demanding more, more.

Albrecht is on the brink of death. A church bell is heard in the distance. Dawn is breaking. “Saved by the bell!” As with the Vampyri, the power of the Wilis is instantly subdued. Myrtha and her troop must return to their graves, and so must Giselle. She has cleverly saved her dream prince and wholeheartedly forgiven him. The repentant Albrecht knows he can never see her again nor risk returning to the site. The last spark of Giselle’s mortal impulse has saved his life. As for tomorrow night ….

The next time you feel the willies, check your heart’s desire.

See my 2008 interview with ballerina Lorena Feijóo:

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:


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