It all started with memories from St. Petersburg
The master work of romantic ballet, Giselle, has been a regular item in the repertoire of the Finnish National Ballet from the company’s founding years. It was first performed in Finland in 1929, and was choreographed by ballet master George Gé, who had studied dance in St. Petersburg before emigrating to Finland. Gé had a deep knowledge of the St. Petersburg ballet repertoire, and his Giselle appeared to lean heavily on his memories from St. Petersburg. According to Gé, the country dances were inspired by folk dancing he had witnessed in Spain, and Beethoven’s music had been arranged in the midst of Adolphe Adam’s original music. Irja Aaltonen, the first ever Finnish Giselle, was lauded by both critics and the audience for her soulful performance. Gé’s version was presented a total of six times from 1929–1930.
Giselle was back in the repertoire of the FNB in 1948 with the version of ballet master Alexander Saxelin. Saxelin also modeled his production on the St. Petersburg performances, which he had seen several times as a child. Saxelin’s version, however, was not particularly well-received. He could not remember the ballet clearly, and took many liberties with the choreography. The premiere saw Margaretha von Bahr as Giselle, who excelled in her interpretation of both the love-struck country girl of Act I and the Wili spirit of Act II. Elsa Sylvestersson was also convincing as Myrtha, the cruel and authoritarian leader of the Wilis. Saxelin’s version was performed 12 times.
Lavrovsky’s Giselle’s 30-year run – Ulanova and Fonteyn visit Helsinki
A new leaf was turned for the Finnish Giselle in 1958 when the FNB had the chance to perform the revision by Leonid Lavrovsky from Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. Lavrovsky’s Giselle was a harmonious and polished production, which allowed the dancers to truly shine. Doris Laine, who danced the lead role in the premiere, was praised for her unerring foot work and creative expression. Margaretha von Bahr’s interpretation of Myrtha portrayed a spirit that was more gentle than cruel.
Lavrovsky’s version stayed in the repertoire of the Finnish National Ballet until 1972. It was presented more than 70 times. The FNB also staged Giselle in Edinburgh in 1959, on tour in Spain in 1961, and in Bergen in 1964. Lavrovsky’s Giselle drew several internationally renowned guest performers to the FNB, the first and most memorable being Galina Ulanova soon after the premiere. In the 1960s, leading ballerinas like Yvette Chauviré, Margot Fonteyn, Ekaterina Maximova, Raisa Struchkova and Natalia Bessmertnova all gave guest performances as Giselle. FNB dancers seen in the role of Giselle included Lisa Taxell, Margaretha von Bahr, Seija Simonen, Riitta Kjäll, and Arja Nieminen.
After a break in 1981, Lavrovski’s Giselle re-emerged in the repertoire with new sets and costumes. The title role in the premiere was danced by Ulrika Hallberg, who would later alternate with Arja Nieminen and Kirsi Aromaa. Nearly 50 performances of Giselle were put on from 1981 to 1984.
Sylvia Guillem revises the ballet – The FNB visits Paris
In 1990, a new choreography for Giselle was created by Jekaterina Pavlova, with Ulrika Hallberg once again in the title role. After Hallberg, Kirsi Aromaa, Nina Hyvärinen, and Francis Guardia danced as Giselle. Pavlova’s version was on the stage over 60 times from 1990 to 1994 – first at the old opera house on Bulevardi, and later at the new opera house near Töölönlahti Bay.
In 1998, the FNB premiered a revision by the star ballerina of Paris Opera, Sylvia Guillem. Guillem had altered the traditional version of the ballet, in part to get closer to the original story. At the premiere, the choreographer herself danced the lead role, which was subsequently performed by, for example, Mira Ollila, Minna Tervamäki, Nelli Korpela, Barbora Kohoutková and Petia Ilieva. Guillem’s revision was on the stage over 60 times from 1998 to 2007; in 2001 the FNB also performed it seven times during its visit to Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
Giselle returns to the repertoire of the Finnish National Ballet in spring 2018, this time with a production by Cynthia Harvey. Harvey’s version, based on the original choreography, was created for the Oslo Ballet in 2009.
Text JUSSI ILTANEN
Photographs SUOMEN KANSALLISOOPPERAN JA -BALETIN ARKISTO (Taisto Tuomi, Kari Hakli, Sakari Viika)
Top of page: Doris Laine danced the title role in the 1958 premiere. Klaus Salin was Albert and Margaretha von Bahr was Myrtha.
Giselle at the Finnish National Ballet from 1929 to 2017: see all performance dates and dancers through the years in our Encore performance database.