How It's Done: Find Your Dreamy Side

Unlocking the secrets of Giselle's Act I variation.
Published in the August/September 2010 issue.

Boston Ballet's Larissa Ponomarenko hits the first arabesque

Photo by Gene Schiavone

Giselle is one of the most romantic stories ever told. There’s the exuberance of a first love, the perils of innocence and, ultimately, the triumph of a pure heart. Fragile and sheltered, Giselle makes an unlikely heroine. She is constantly pulled back from the festivities because of her weak heart. But for a moment in Act I, her love for Albrecht overflows and she must dance. The variation provides the technical high point of Act I and is the dancer’s opportunity to win over the audience with Giselle’s charm and vulnerability. When done correctly, it can appear as though danced on a cloud. Marianna Tcherkassky performed Giselle countless times as a principal with American Ballet Theatre. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times called her “one of the greatest Giselles that American ballet produced.” Now, as ballet mistress for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Tcherkassky coaches a new generation of heroines. 

Romantic Port de Bras
First performed by the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1841, Giselle remains a hallmark of the Romantic era of ballet. The style requires demure, understated port de bras. “The arms are more rounded and in front,” says Tcherkassky. “Your gestures should be a little smaller.” Unlike the Balanchine style, where the fingers are distinguished from one another, hands should be soft, an extension of the line of your arm. However, don’t let them become limp. “It’s important to be true to the Romantic style,” she says, “but the port de bras still has to be alive and speak to the audience.”

A Smoothe Penché
The first movements of the variation are daunting: piqué arabesque, roll through the foot to a penché in plié. “To create the magic, hold that first arabesque a little longer than everyone expects,” says Tcherkassky. “Then rolling through the foot into penché softens all the edges.” Keep your weight forward when stepping into the piqué arabesque so that you can plié into the penché smoothly. “You can always pull yourself back,” Tcherkassky says, “but getting your weight forward after the fact is much harder.” Once in the penché, keep stretching your arabesque leg longer for stability and to lengthen the line.


Prove Your Passion
This variation is Giselle’s expression of love for Albrecht, still pure and untainted by his deception. “At this point, she has complete trust in Albrecht and feels complete elation,” says Tcherkassky. “It must reflect in her dancing.” Blow kisses to Albrecht and exchange loving glances throughout the variation so that the audience can feel Giselle’s passion. “Make the variation light, airy and joyful, with a warmth and generosity that embraces everyone around but is directed mostly
at Albrecht. You should feel an inner glow like your skin is shimmering.” The mad scene becomes all the more poignant if Giselle’s love for Albrecht has been
tenderly demonstrated in this variation.

Hops On Pointe
Many dancers dread the 32 ballonnés on pointe. This is a rare instance where keeping your weight back will help. “A higher ballonné keeps you on balance; if your leg gets too low, it will pull you forward off pointe,” Tcherkassky says. To help develop strength for hops, practice changements on pointe and occasionally stop to balance.


Maintaining soft, Romantic-style arms can prove especially difficult in this part of the variation. “For the hops, the arms should be held in soft curves in front of the body, opening out as a presentation to Giselle’s mother and Albrecht. Then they might rise above the head to frame the face,” suggests Tcherkassky. “You just don’t want any tension to show.” Alignment is the key to a weightless upper body in this section. “Keep your weight slightly back, the head over the shoulders, shoulders over the hips.” If you’re having trouble, a simple trick is to hold your skirt.

Get Into Character
Giselle is a dreamer and a romantic, often a far cry from today’s strong, confident ballerinas. “Relive some early first love and remember all of those feelings,” says Tcherkassky. “Experience it again.” Understand your Giselle and create her history. “You should be so full of love and joy that it is as if your feet don’t touch the floor,” she says. Regardless of how perfectly you execute the steps, “Remember,” says Tcherkassky, “you are always trying to create the magic.”


Kathleen McGuire writes about dance from Pittsburgh, PA.