112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Haunting of Giselle

Ashley N. Shams, University of St. Thomas

This paper examines the ghostly Wilis of Act II of the romantic ballet Giselle as manifestations of   repressed violence done to them that now that forces them to haunt the living. Furthermore, as the societal context of the ballet changes in modern reworkings so too does the identity of the Wilis and the haunting they represent.


The Romantic ballet Giselle was first performed in Paris in 1841.  The libretto by Théophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges with music by Alphonse Adam combine to tell the story of a young peasant woman named Giselle and her lover, the Duke Albrecht, who disguises himself as the peasant Loys.  At first glance, it is the power of their ill-fated love that acts as the central theme of the work.  When Hilarion, a potential but rejected suitor of Giselle, reveals Albrecht’s true identity, Giselle dies of a broken heart.  In the second act, evening falls and Myrtha, the evil queen of the Wilis, appears and awakens the other Wilis. The Wilis are ghosts of unwed girls who liked to dance too much and who died broken hearted before their wedding day. These ghosts are compelled to seek revenge nightly in a haunting of sorts where they lure unsuspecting men and dance them to death. But, their tale is not a story of simple retribution.

As Avery Gordon points out, haunting is “an animated state in which repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known […] ” (Gordon, xvi.). In this paper, I will argue that the Wilis are the manifestationof this unresolved repressed violence. I will demonstrate that, as  the societal context of the ballet changes in the contemporary productions of Mats Ek (1982) and Michael Keegan-Dolan (2003), so too does the identity of the Wilis and the social violence they represent. A key term for this study will be “reworkings” which Vida Midgelow defines as dance works that “mobilize a bidirectional gaze – to itself and backwards to the source”. It is this intertextuality that sheds light on the status of the Wilis. In each case, they are what Julia Kristeva would call the abject, those who are who are cast-off from society because their existence threatens the social order.

I will show that, in the original Giselle, the Wilis represent the dangerous power of women’s libido when left unchecked by true love or motherhood.  In order to protect social order then, these libidinous unwed women are shunned by society. The Mats Ek modern ballet version heightens the threat of the female libido by turning it against women themselves as the Wilis’ unchecked sexual desire drives them insane and they must be confined to the mental hospital, alienated from themselves and society. The greatest shift in context appears in Keegan-Dolan’s dance theatre version. Here, the Wilis are danced by androgynous (male) performers who represent the perceived threat posed by non-heteronormative men to society’s fundamental structure. These Wilis, like the others, must be spurned.

After having demonstrated the haunting presented by the Wilis, I will conclude by arguing that the nature of a reworking is, in and of itself, a haunting of sorts. By virtue of its bi-directional gaze, a reworking can be described in hauntological terms that is, it begins by coming back, it entails a non-present present, a being-there of an absent.


Gordon, Avery F. Ghoslty Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Print.