Spatial Poetics of Gautier’s ‘Giselle’

Ballet Ireland’s creative re-working of Gautier’s nineteenth Century Classic is currently touring Ireland http://projectartscentre.ie/event/giselle/ having had its premiere in Project Arts Centre this week. Here I had the pleasure of watching bodies flesh out before me, a story that was all- too familiar. My first engagement with Giselle began twenty- two years prior, when my mother deemed it fitting for me to be named after this brash and theatrical production. Now as a Geographer and semi-practitioner of Irish and contemporary dance, I find an affinity with this ballet that exceeds the name alone; not only is Giselle food for the mind and soul, but its sensorial experience, and intellectual narratives demand of me, a brief exploration of its more uncharted spatial territories. What follows is a personal response to Giselle’s geographical formations of bodies, space and place that through their inter-relations, I hope offer insight for both geographer and dancer alike.

Giselle: A Synopsis
Giselle is a romantic tragedy, often referred to as the “Hamlet of dance” for its themes of madness, deception, and death. Theophile Gautier wrote the original libretto for this classical piece, with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Petrro and musical score by Adolphe Adam. Consisting of two Acts and lasting almost two hours in duration, Giselle is packed with performative detail, and what follows is no more than a mere précis. Act I takes place in daylight in an unnamed village of the Rhineland and centres on the fate of two main characters: Giselle, the young dark-haired peasant girl, and Albrecht a nobleman in disguise. Giselle, who is weak-of-heart, but has a passion for life and loves to dance, is courted by Albrecht or ‘Loys’, unaware that he is secretly bethroded to Princess Bathilde. Hilarion, the village gatekeeper, loves Giselle, but is afforded with little attention given her fidelity to the nobleman. Driven by a state of jealously, Hilarion exposes Albrecht’s deception to the villagers, materially embodied in Bathilde’s wedding ring, and Albrecht’s sword. What ultimately results is a tour- de- force of deranged pathos, as Giselle loses all sight of reality and reason, seizes the sword in troubling melee, and collapses dead at villagers’ feet. Giselle’s fate is solidified in Act II, which opens on the misty moonlight of her wooded grave. We learn quickly that this is also the land of the Wilis; ethereal Vampire-like maidens who prey on men who have led women to their abrupt demise. Giselle, acting under the tutelage of Mrytha – baleful Queen of the Wilis – has been tasked with avenging these men by ‘dancing them to their death.’ Plagued with regret and remorse, an unwitting Albrecht and Helarion search for Giselle’s burial ground, and though Helarion is captured by spectral beings and danced to exhaustion, Albrecht is spared by Giselle’s unconditional love which shields him from Myrtha’s wrath. Dancing tirelessly until dawn, the pair enjoy harmonious unison of body and mind in a pas –de- deux that lasts until Wilis are summoned back to their graves.
Not unlike the emotionalised landscape of Hamlet’s graveyard scene, wonderfully poised juxtapositions of body and spirit, light and dark, death and salvation make Giselle a quintessential Romantic tragedy. For the central heroine, she too, is a deeply troubled and complex soul, whose eponymous role demands of the dancer, “all of herself” (The Guardian, 2016). Giselle is characteristically ‘difficult’ both behaviourally and performatively; not only do we see her stomp her foot demanding that Albrecht chase her in Act I, but her complexity is undoubtedly choreographically mirrored in the intricacies and technicalities of the enchainment of ballones and pas-de-basque’s throughout. That the title of the dance be homologous with the prima ballerina too, is by no means insignificant either; ‘Gisele’ derives from Germanic origin meaning ‘hostage’ or ‘to pledge’ and while her heart is undoubtedly a ‘hostage’ of Albrecht’s philandering, never does she break her ‘pledge’ of love and allegiance. Just like Hamlet, the name is everything, and without it, the dance becomes nothing. Since its premiere at Opera de Paris in 1841, Giselle has been in repertory the world over as one of the greatest ballets of the Classical canon and its continued success, I believe, speaks to the poignant words of Gautier on the night of its release: “this ballet will last as long as there is beauty.” (Guest, 1986).

Bodies and the ‘State’ of Insanity
By juxtaposing two alternate readings of Giselle’s madness, I aim to show how geographical perspectives brought to dance, offer interesting insights into the bodies and environments of nineteenth century France. The transgressive apotheoisis of the ‘Mad Scene’ ultimately speaks to a post-modern condition of insanity that satire’s Giselle’s romantic excess. In growing comprehension of Albrecht’s deception, Giselle colonizes public space in a dizzying frenzy that disrupts linearities in ballet’s traditional poise; she collapses to the ground, shrugs off villagers while tugging at her dress, her eyes protrude, hair is pulled loose, the head rolls and arms gesture frantically for space (See figure 1). Propelling her movements are orchestral instruments that screech with hysterical laughter, and in their disapproving crescendo, a performative beast is released both erratic and unpredictable. For me, this tormented display personifies damaged beauty resonant with the contemporary Taylor Swift musical lyric: “a nightmare dressed like a daydream” or could be somewhat visually comparable to Bertha Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre.’ [see note 1]. Smith’s (1997) intellectual triumph: “Ballet and Opera in the time of Giselle’ attributes this rapid decline to ‘hysteria’; (from the Greek work ‘hypotikos’ meaning ‘womb’); a condition historically and spatially mapped onto the gendered body for over two thousand years. Dance historians almost always isolate Albrecht’s deception as the fuel for Giselle’s psychosis (see: Bruner 2011). But a ‘spatial archaeology’ of movements and locations in Act I may illuminate how ‘going’ mad (as in the geographical word, to ‘leave’) was indicative of Giselle’s ‘absence’ from the very beginning. Lending support to Smith’s (1997) argument is Urista’s (2011) claim that Giselle’s inability or unwillingness to participate in the Harvest gatherings (preferring to stay at home and knit or dance), renders her spatially removed and ‘Othered’ from the village folk even prior to Albrecht’s assignations. I would argue that geographer’s above all, have been especially attentive to the ways in which bodies are ‘Othered’ by failing to comply with normative and culturally sanctioned practices of sanity within and through social space, (for examples of mental health see Parr, 2008; Philo 2013). In nineteenth century classical Medicine, madness too, was mapped to the body as opposed to the mind, as conditions characterised by excessive involuntary movements were often referred to as the “Chorea’s” – the Greek word for dance (Wainright and Williams, 2004; McCarron, 1997). Genealogically, this is intriguing, for it reveals how dancing bodies have themselves ‘travelled’ from sites of pathologization, to a contemporary form of Self-therapy [see note 3]. In the ballet of Giselle, verbal indicators lack, meaning that spectators must ultimately rely upon bodily cues to ‘perform’ visible symptomologies of hysteria. With flights and flutters that draw attention to her hips and waist, Giselle embodies a condition that folds dance and disease into one. As the site where all human life begins, Giselle’s womb becomes symbolic of cruel punishment for her deviance by occupying a place of origin in her own demise.

Figure 1: Coralli uses the body to ‘perform’ Giselle’s madness

I do not locate Giselle’s madness within gendered spaces of the female body. Instead, I find reprieve in thinking that Giselle’s ill-health is symptomatic of the state-induced environmental conditions of nineteenth Century France. McCarron’s ‘Dance Pathologies’ (1998:70) is a singular and unparalleled contribution for arguing forcefully in links between syphilis, sex and death in the ballet (and body) of Giselle. For me, this argument is more persuasive, as it was not uncommon for poorly paid corps- de -ballet of the Parisian City 1841 to sexually entertain their male bourgeois in exchange for economic favour (Alterman 2008; Wulff 1998; McCarron 1998). Containing the spatial spread of venereal infection amid such economic hardship and leisurely pursuits posed one of the greatest public health challenges for French authorities when up to “15 percent of the [city’s] adult population was infected, a level that anticipates today’s AIDS/HIV crisis.”(Perrotet: 2007: unpaginated). For vengeful and sexually- deviant Wilis of Act II, it may not be outrageous to speculate that shared STI’s between dancer and spectator were instrumentalized as a form of ‘bio-warfare’ to avenge upper-class men and their unwitting wives (McCarron; Ulsria 2011; Alderson; 2008). By mapping a sexual allegory to real life, the ballet thus serves as a cautionary tale for wealthy men not to transgress spaces of their own socio- economic status. Despite this, dance historians will continue to debate Giselle’s demise, given that we are provided with the visual prompts to her death (for a detailed analysis see Smith 1990). But vulnerability, as we would understand it, comes from the Latin word ‘vulnus’, meaning wound. And while undoubtedly, a wound may be an injury from a sword, it may also be interpreted as an ‘opening’ that is created through, and continually impinged upon by, a physical outside ‘Other.’ As a geographer, I interpret the wound to be a porous interface between body and State that while although may hurt and even ‘scar’ the body, it nevertheless provides ethical and political potential. I would venture to suggest that Giselle embodies the wounds of a state that has placed dancers in what Judith Butler (2009) refers to as a particularly ‘precarious’ (or state- induced) position to venereal infection, and conversely, it is through this very ethically relational interface, that she has been able to save the life of another; namely Albrecht.

Michel Foucault (1971) once famously noted that “sex is worth dying for.” And here I wish to affirm the pleasurable associations between sex, death and madness that abound in this production, too. Even as someone accustomed to dance, I have not yet experienced an embodied encounter comparable to the enchanting and transcendental chorus of ballet- blanc in Act II of Giselle. One of the particularly alluring aspects of the production I attended was the fusion of blue-green light and mist used to both strike and emphasise angles of dancers muscular form. (See figure 2). Regrettably, mood and movements are lost in my mere attempt at translation through prescriptive and formulaic text. Nevertheless, the ballet’s sensorial experience is enhanced by the athletic pyknic of Karenya’s cold and stoic ‘Myrtha’ that I felt was deliberately chosen to contrast with Giselle’s easily over-powered and innocent nature. Unlike other ballets I have attended (such as the Nutcracker), dancers in Giselle act are much more than a prop for the Principals; the Wilis must act in unison in order for their death-drive to be fully realized. Though the Wilis are frequently referred to as a fetishized female force (see; Bergustrom 2008), in the absence of other men on stage, and in their violent disposition, I interpret them to incorporate a more masculine strength of character. In white ensemble of muscular beauty, the fluidity of the Wilis can be seen to subliminally mirror the mobility of sperm-like creatures. Of course, as we know, sperm often assists in the process of giving life rather than taking it away, but the Wilis as sexualised death is echoed by Literary Professor Peter Stoneley in ‘A Queer History of the Ballet’ (2006) who finds that its male eroticisation was hidden among original choreographers; Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli who both desired, and had sex with, other men of the ballet, (for example; ballet dancer Rudolph Nuravyev died of AIDS in much the same manner). Dancers too, have found Giselle to be an ‘attractive’ opportunity to flirt with the limits of their own mental state; “going global with the body” by journeying to different spaces of the stage while experimenting with mood and emotion, has been used by Ursita (2011) as a coaching technique in its production, while Melania Eastroe in her Australian debut role claimed that she “really enjoy[ed] going mad. If you are able to tell it beautifully [then] it feels like it’s the right amount, and by the time you finish act two it’s quite serene,” (Metro, 2006: 23). If madness truly has a beauty, then it is with profound sadness that we have been robbed of the most stunning and successful Giselle’s who themselves have been characteristically ‘mad’ and in some instances have even conceded to taking their own lives off-stage (Bruner, 1997). This is why Maina Gielgud Director of London’s 20 year production argues that many girls will self- identify with the role, but not every ballerina is ready or able to play the part. Her “delicate and sensitive nature” is best suited for a “mature dancer” rather than a “legs -round –the- ears ballerina” (O’Brien, 2006: 23). For Natalia Osipova, famous Russian performer of Giselle (and Odette from Swan Lake), what she wishes for us to take from this production is a “purification of emotions” that would enable us to be “more kinder”, “more loving to our families” and to “avoid [making] the mistakes in life.” (Royal Opera House, 2014).

Figure 2: The muscular ‘Mythra’ in the land of the Wilis

Spaces of the ‘Mad-House’
Giselle is a spatially expansive ballet, both on, and off the set. Having travelled from France, Russia, North America and back to contemporary Europe, the dance morphs as it moves, all the while collecting and importing new cultural interpretations and variegated styles for us to enjoy, (Seaver, 2015). The ‘whiteness’ of the ballet is itself a product of Colonial legacies; a theme taken up and delightfully subverted in Harlem’s creole production, (See; Gaiser, 2006). Here, I draw upon two contemporary artistic re-workings of Gautier’s classic; namely Mats Ek’s Swedish production in 1989 and Ireland’s Keegan-Dolan 2003 re-working, to show how these divergent productions delineate between ‘space’ as a materialized ‘container’ of madness, and space as an abstracted genesis of its same effect. Such artistic renderings of space (one as treatment for Giselle’s madness and one as causal factor of same), reveal culturally-specific intellectual concerns of the contemporary Artists in the countries of their display. Space can be described as an a priori form that allows us to know of our external reality, (Kant, 1783 [1929]). Fortunately, it is also a perceptual experience that through various artworks, can be reinforced, challenged and even subverted. In Mats Ek’s re-working of Giselle, white fairy gowns of the Wilis are replaced with medical gowns of dancing nurses, as Giselle finds herself alternatively placed in the surrealistic site of a mental hospital. In Ek’s project, the asylum functions as the quintessential space of so-called ‘self-improvement.’ But as Foucault imagined, the asylum space is not only one of individuation but of totalization. And here, Ek plays with notions of space in the literal sense of ‘site-specificity’ as an analogy for the social death that Giselle experiences, (Bergstom, 2013). Spatially removed and cut-off from the village for both her, and other peoples’ security, Giselle is dispossessed of her Self and body, and is laid bare in an arguably more tragic spectacle than her earlier demise. Even accounting for the expanse in Giselle’s intellectual potential, without the serene release of death, Giselle is trapped in a body no longer her own, and is turned over to the audience as nothing more than a mere object of both medical and scientific investigation. If madness can be described as ‘doing the same things over and expecting different results’ (A.Einstein) then we doubtless see Giselle dance this, through a body-memory of heart-wrenching solos that repeat and relive her ballones and pirouettes of earlier happier moments spent with Albrecht. Read through Goffman’s (1961) ‘philosophy of containment’ or so-called ‘social-interactionist’ perspective however, there may still be subtle hints of the actor’s agency that leak through spaces of the asylum. Hilarion, re-imagined here as Giselle’s fiancé, continues to visit her, but never once does she attempt to leave or escape with him, indicating that perhaps the asylum is not so much repressively coercive, as it is relatively voluntaristic. I would argue that while Giselle’s identity has become spatially fixed to the asylum, Ek’s vision for Giselle is one of in fact belonging to a regulated, contained and protected space that may be preferable for her damaged, vulnerable soul that was never quite ready for the demands and expectations of adult life. Set against a period of de-institutionalisation and the growth of alternative community- setting mental -health care, (see; Moon et al 2006) Ek’s alternative space for Giselle is one that functions as both container and treatment for madness that asks difficult questions of where to ‘place’ people experiencing troubling symptoms of mental ill-health.

At odds with Ek’s production, is Keegan-Dolan’s modern re-working of Giselle which punctuates the text with spaces and spacing’s in a more referential sense. Radically different from the Classic, this dark but refreshingly progressive male cast and electronic score hangs on similar themes of betrayal and Otherness, (for video and reviews see below). Set in ‘Ballyfeeney’, a fictional village of the Irish Midlands, Giselle’s body becomes an abrasive moral satire on the values of rural Irish life. Hilarion is recast as Giselle’s very own ‘village idiot’; neither fiancé nor follower, he is instead her deranged axe-wielding brother whom she and ‘Nurse Mary’ must stay home to care for. An Albanian Albrecht penetrates traditional village life both figuratively and literally, by sodomizing the village butcher, later having to prove his love to Giselle despite his homosexual tendencies. Performatively and narratively, Keegan-Dolan does two things with this production: firstly, he puts forth an abstracted reading of space that imitates the restricted setting of rural Irish life. As the audience become enveloped in an all-encompassing darkness littered with cluttered props, and Hilarion’s repeated asthmatic convulsions and gasping for air give an illusion of “claustrophic tensions” the setting begins to materially render and reflect Ireland’s tensions and restrictions, (Roberston, 2003). Dislocated sounds from an electronic score add to this sense of unease, as we are given the impression that Monsters might be creeping up from behind. And the familiar characters we know perform instead chaotic and disjointed movements devoid of linear narratives other than the impromptu responses to Keegan-Dolan’s own intellectual pre-occupations. This reading of space is both complemented by, and filtered through, the opening of Ireland’s borders to the body of an Albanian immigrant. Narratively, the loquacity and creative wit of Irish culture (for a literary example see: Ni Dhuibhne, 1999) is utilized as an alternative modality to narrate and humanize Giselle’s sorrows. Albrecht’s demons on the other hand are spatialized through a rapturous chorus of chanting male Wilis; both gay and overweight who get brought into the story of Giselle, and indeed the public space of the village, for perhaps the very first time. What Keegan-Dolan does theatrically and narratively is both brave and commendable; his caricatured depiction of Irish life radically de-centres madness from the central heroine, so that Giselle’s body is no longer mapped with a stigmatizing ‘madness’ alone. Instead, he effectively re-maps the entire Island of Ireland as a teach dUsachtach (mad house) that is given audibility through the screaming aloud of “Giselle,” which replaces a national silence and erasure of sexuality from Irish memory. Despite the success of its visual poetics, the cultural alterity of this production seems to confuse and disappoint British reviewer; Fricker (2003) who writes that: “the production does not even sound Irish: the cast speak in a mixture of global accents” but perhaps there is a failure to appreciate that only through the porosity of Irelands’ borders (see; Kearns, 2016), and the ‘entry’ of the immigrant, can Ireland begin to surface the ‘mad’ legacies of its sexual denial. Taken together, these artistic productions sensitize the geographer to ways in which space is differentially experienced by non-normative subjects, and rather than providing explicit answers, these re-workings challenge and engage geographers with insightful new ways to produce, reflect, and re-map the complexities of our contemporary socio-spatial present.

The ‘Place’ of Loy’s Love
Finally, I finish with some brief reflections as to how the body of Albrecht or ‘Loys’ might function as a form of ‘place’ for Giselle. Place has been generally described by geographers as a kind of embedded geographical location. But place, for prominent philosopher Edward Casey (1997), cannot arise without bodies that “vivify and sustain them.” While Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1985: 152) has similarly documented the sensorial role of the body in his seminal account of place-attachment or ‘topophilia’, his argument rests on a presupposition that for an attachment to develop, one must first be distant to begin with. Special bonds we form with place are cultivated through “olfactory and tactile experience”; the genesis of place in this sense being the genesis of knowledge gained about it. We can see how Tuan’s account of ‘place’ might apply to Giselle in the infamous scene of ‘hopes-en-pointe’ where her sensorial perception of place changes by virtue of her engagements with Albrecht; flower petals are pulled apart in a child-like ‘he loves me-he loves me not’ fashion. Flowers in fact become a recurring leitmotif in the ballet, as a remorseful Albrecht later returns to Giselle’s grave with lillies in hand, suggesting that he may not have been as caddish as we are led to first believe. However, the difficulty with Tuan’s phenomenological approach is that it rests on the unargued assumption that place is first made, felt and experienced, through a sort of geographical distance from its objects – indeed objects in this way merely become the subjects’ of one’s own sensory imagination and thought. For Tuan, the smallest geographical unit from which we can begin to venture forth, is the home. Casey’s analysis is perhaps more insightful in this regard as he premises the body as the ‘hinge’ between location and space. Place, for Casey, is conditioned through a congealing of bodies that is tasked with transgressing a polarity in space. More than Tuan’s “centre of meaning”, place becomes a powerful site of exchange between materialities. I would therefore argue that Loy’s body becomes a sort of ‘place’ for Giselle, one that is frequented often for offering both stability and escape. In some ways, Giselle finds ‘home’ and shelter in Albrecht, as his tall, strong, muscular body is indispensable for how Giselle’s own sense of security and vitality of place comes to be formed. After Albrecht’s ‘visits’ in Act I, Giselle frolics merrily among the village spreading her good news and joy. It then reaches climactic proportions in the ‘Mad Scene’ when ‘Loy’s’ true identity is revealed and Giselle is effectively dispossessed of her entire sense of place. She quickly becomes frazzled and disorientated, materially embodied in her inability to stand upright. This effect, I believe, has resonance with what Mindy Fullilove (2004) refers to as ‘Root shock’ whereby those who have experienced a displacement from ‘home’ begin to bear the psychological marks of trauma as a consequence of their dispossession. Root Shock, she argues, refers to the “traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem” ( Fullilove, 2004:11). Such tactile connection with the ‘place’ of Albrecht’s body is embodied in the cinematic pas- de- deux of Act II which sees a melding of minds that reveals how these bodies have truly known and understood one another all along. Beginning as a slow adage, their steps soon quicken in pace, as Myrtha tasks Giselle with dancing more elaborate leaps, pirouettes and fouettes’ until Albrecht is too exhausted to carry on. Giselle, normally guarded in the life-world of the Village, allows him into the intimate places of her dancing body (such as the underarm, crotch and chest) in order to proudly lift, catch and display her. And although it is aesthetically delightful to watch, I would argue that it also beholds a troubling ambiguity, best reflected in the words of Judy Bruner (1997: 119): “any pleasure I feel is tinged with guilt, and any judgment I make is weakened by the rapture I experience at the most powerful choreographic moments.” The pleasure I take myself from ballet is stymied by a body that could never quite grasp its tempered and controlled linear movements. But Irish dance has however, borrowed from its register, as Slip Jigs have become increasingly balletic over the years and rocks, butterflies and enchacats are often performed without a pleat. One aspect I can certainly relate to is having to hold and maintain elongated position on demi-pointe. When perfecting pointe-related steps in Irish dance, our teacher would always maintain that we practice first by using a table or chair to support our weight. With all the best instruction in the world, Irish dancers must still learn to achieve these steps alone. Because of this, I find it perplexing that at the moment Giselle is suspended and displayed in mid-air, her freedom is all the while constrained by another, (Ruben, 1998). Though she looks as if in mid- flight, she is at the same time being held onto by Albrecht so that she doesn’t float away, (see figure 3). Her aesthetic display becomes part of Albrecht’s success, but never fully her own. Giselle in some ways then, reverts back to the child who requires props to scaffold her success. Asked about my own vision for Giselle, I would venture to suggest that her ultimate goal is to defect from Albrecht’s body and to ‘go it alone’ which we regrettably fails to see, as her repertoire of solos only ever pertain to her state of madness (which again, ‘belongs’ to the body of Albrecht). Still, perhaps as a result of naivety, or perhaps as an apologist, I continue to interpret this story of Giselle as one of hope and strength in the face of such loss.

Figure 3: Graveyard Scene: Giselle and Albrecht’s pas-de-deux

Gisele E. Connell
Masters Candidate, Maynooth University

Endnotes:
1. Giselle’s madness and death is a recurring leitmotif in other contemporary visual cultures, from the music video for Lana Del Rey’s ‘Black Beauty’ on the iconic album: “Ultraviolence” where dancers from Royal Ballet’s Giselle move in synch to: “life is beautiful, but you don’t have a clue.” Another medley in musical dialogue with this production, is ‘Dark Paradise’ where Del Rey apathetically announces: “I can’t survive if this is all that’s real” and is referenced again on ‘Queen of Disaster’: “you got me spinning like a Ballerina…[together]we celebrate our twisted faith.” Enough space cannot be afforded here to the parallels and indeed what this might mean for Giselle’s continued legacy in a post-feminist era, but it would certainly make for fascinating future analysis.
2. The Blue -Green light and mist of the Willis reminds me of the gaelic Irish word ‘glas’ a mixture of sea and sky – see: Silvia Loeffler’s work on ‘Glas Journal’ for the reflections of a ‘deep-mapping’ of Dun Laoghaire Harbour
3. Ballet, and dance more broadly, is frequently being used as a healing therapy for Alzheimers and Dementia. See for example: http://www.danceandementia.co.uk
4. For an example of Irish humour recounting the history of our national dance genre, see Flann O’Brien’s witty account of dancing the ‘long dance’ of an Irish Feis – in An Béal Bocht [1941] (The Poor Mouth, 1973).

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