Katherine Williams as Myrtha. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

With a large exhale, Katherine Williams steps into a series of arabesque chugs, as if the force of her breath is propelling her forward. "Big step out, big," coaxes ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, watching from the front of a small studio at American Ballet Theatre in May. It's a big step indeed for Williams—after 10 years in the corps de ballet, the 29-year-old is preparing for her debut as Myrtha in ABT's production of Giselle, her very first principal role. One month after the premiere, Williams was promoted to soloist.

"Myrtha is the hardest thing I've ever done," Williams admits. "By the end you feel like you're going to throw up. I was using my breath as much as I could to help me get through it."

While Williams is tall and a natural jumper, she was surprised when artistic director Kevin McKenzie cast her in such a fierce and powerful role. "Generally they give me the happy peasant girl, something softer," she says. "I think it was a leap of faith for Kevin to allow me to embrace a totally different side of myself."

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Ballet Stars
Martine van Hamel as Myrtha in "Giselle," via YouTube

The story of Giselle has emotional power in the way it blurs the lines between good and evil. Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is often considered the villainess, but her character is far more complex than the bad guys in most ballets. A wounded spirit determined to protect her companions the only way she knows how, Myrtha is ethereal, yet ruthless. Every ballerina must meet the challenge of the role in her own way. Martine van Hamel, a former American Ballet Theatre principal, brings the opposing forces of Myrtha's nature into harmonious balance in this 1977 clip.

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Ballet Stars
DePrince soars in English National Ballet's "Giselle." Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

As told to Amy Brandt.

Myrtha is a role I've always loved to watch, but when Tamara Rojo asked me to dance it for English National Ballet's Giselle last year as a guest artist, I thought she was crazy. The role is usually for a tall, strong dancer. I'm strong, but I'm also very petite. I thought people might criticize me for that. I also wore brown tights onstage, since I'm a brown dancer, and I was nervous people wouldn't understand that—but I got great comments on it.

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Christiana Bennett as Myrtha. Photo by Luke Isley. Courtesy Ballet West.

She's Giselle's anti-heroine: Myrtha, the cold-hearted spirit queen who leads the Wilis in nightly crusades against mortal men. With three back-to-back variations that involve a mix of supple pointework, adagio and grand allégro, the role can be technically and artistically exhausting. "Myrtha is probably one of the hardest things, besides Aurora, that I've ever done," says Ballet West principal Christiana Bennett, who performed the role in November. "And you have to stay so stoic." Below are her tips for mastering ballet's iciest queen.

​1. Remember Your Motivation

Myrtha is a product of her painful past. Bennett recalls BW artistic director Adam Sklute's advice when considering her characterization: "He said, 'Remember, you're the first woman to die of a broken heart. You've been hunting down men for hundreds of years, so there's a comfort level with your actions.' " And as queen, Myrtha seethes with authority. "I try to make it seem like I'm orchestrating everything. When the Wilis stand up, I anticipate that and call them up from the ground."

2. Radiate Power From the Inside Out

Myrtha's power lies in her icy stoicism, which Bennett says stems from a quiet, internal strength. "I think of having a tightness in my stomach, and letting it course through the rest of my body." As for facial expression, subtlety works better than sneers. "I keep all the intensity in my eyes, and every once in a while I raise an eyebrow," she says. Try to keep the face free of tension, as well. "It's hard not to clench your jaw, but I try to keep everything from my eyelids down very calm."

3. Feel the Wind at Your Back

Myrtha's bourrées across the stage should have a ghostlike quality, as if she's skimming the ground. To stay level, Bennett moves her feet as quickly as possible, yet gently and quietly so that her body doesn't jerk in response. "It's almost like a whooshing feeling—like when your windows open and your curtains get sucked out, then blow back into the room," she says. "I imagine that the wind is pushing me."

4. Slow and Steady

During Myrtha's slow promenade in arabesque, finishing in penchée, any hop or bobble is glaringly obvious. For more stability, Bennett thinks of sliding all of her weight onto her standing foot. "Again, it's that whoosh effect," she says. "It forces you to find your balance, instead of peg-legging into the ground." Keep the first arabesque arms classically square and below the shoulders, "as if they're a rudder of a ship." During the penchée, looking out beyond your fingertips, as opposed to directly down, will give you more security.

5. Stay in Control of the Role

After the Wilis' arabesque chugs, Myrtha charges out of the wings with grands jetés, finishing with a climactic manège. But don't lose the characterization or throw the port de bras away. "The music is so gorgeous that I just want to come out beaming! But you have to keep it all inside. I really try to focus on proper classical arm placement and not go to extremes."


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