This essay presents the resources I used in the creation of my work Roses and explores how I have analysed and interpreted them in the making of the performance. I am using the ballet Giselle as my central text for this exploration because it reflects my own experience of navigating my body inside Western and European dance contexts and wider Western society. I will explore how the representation of women in Giselle contributes to a larger narrative of disappearing women in stories of beauty and tragedy and how this denies them the opportunity to participate in defining beauty themselves. The ability to define what is beautiful is often seized by the dominant group because of the inherent power this act holds. This denial is a process used against many, not just women but I will focus my discussion here on Giselle and how it is used by the patriarchy as a tool of female subjugation. It’s worth noting before I begin that re-seizing control of beauty and the ability to make it has been carried out historically as an act of resistance by many different groups of people. Although retracing these examples is outside the scope of this essay, I hope that my work can be a homage to the people engaged in that process.

Across the many renditions of Giselle, white flowers are a motif used in the second act. My favourite rendition by the Bolshoi Ballet theatre specifically uses white lilies. The lilies are scattered onto graves, at the feet of loved ones, into the wings of the stage and down from robotic trees that protrude from the wings. As I was watching the ballet, I felt that while this flower was used to symbolise love, it also represents the ephemeral power held by the primary female characters. How the ballet unfolds and what happens to those flowers can be read as an instruction manual for how this power should be used. The white lily is used by the female characters as a proxy for this ephemeral power. They depict the strength of Giselle’s love – strong enough to halt death –as she scatters them on the stage in protest. They characterise the vehemence of the Queen of the Wilis – a ghostly group of women betrayed by their lovers who haunt the forest and indiscriminately torture men by forcing them to dance to their death – as she uses a large wand made of lilies to summon Giselle from her grave and attempts to send Albrecht to his. When Myrtha wields her power to torment the two key male characters in the forest, she is cast as cold, cruel, and ultimately unwomanly. When Giselle uses her power to save Albrecht by throwing her lilies at his feet, she is contrastingly portrayed as the ideal self-sacrificing woman. After saving Albrecht’s life with her love (and lilies), Giselle is lowered into her grave. As she descends, she passes up her last flower to Albrecht in the land of the still living. In this final flourish Giselle not only loses her life because of Albrecht, but she also passes on her power to him. She is no longer part of the Wilis and will return to her grave in what is called “peace” but seems more like isolation. The Wilis can then be seen as the manifestation of her potential power, and her turning her back on them as her relinquishing of it. We could conclude from all of this that the only respectable way a woman can use this power is to give it away in service of a man, as Giselle’s lilies are scattered, and Myrtha’s wand of lilies – so cruel and unwomanly – is snapped in two and rendered useless. But there are other ways of seeing things.

There are many stories, real and fantasy, in which the disappearance or death of the female character is used as a plot device for the realisation of the male characters(1). Female characters in media such as film and books often exist as mere surfaces onto which the action is played, rather than true agents of their own stories(2). Interestingly, in many of the romantic ballets – Giselle included – both the appearance and disappearance of the female form is navigated simultaneously. Like most works in this canon, Giselle uses this opportunity to control the portrayal of the female body as innocent through processes of desexualisation and infantilisation. The women are represented as ethereal beings costumed with wings on their back as though they are fairies, not human, let alone mature women. As Alderson says in his analysis of Giselle’s second act “both beauty and purity depend upon a sexuality refined to the vanishing point”(3). Thus, in order for the female to appear in the dance, she must first disappear parts of her sexual maturity to make herself palatable. The invention of pointe work and its use in this ballet depicts an obsession with the lightness of the women. In a gesture that is a convenient act of disappearance, they float just off the ground. While all of this can sometimes feel far away from the representation of women in contemporary dance, in my experience the dancing body is remains plagued in many instances by the projection or expectation of an innocence, even whilst radical ideas are being explored in the form. This perpetual disappearing act seeps into the real-world disappearance of women from cultural spheres, public spaces and discussions, and not unrelatedly, from the physical world all together(4). This made me think about all of the dead bodies and disappearances in our narratives, and how I could make a counternarrative.

Roses is a proposed text that counterbalances Giselle’s second act by making a dance centring female subjectivity and agency. I imagine the rose to be the perfect antidote to Giselle Act II’s lilies. Not only because its typically red colour and thorns antithetical to the structure of the lily, but because it is so often used to represent ephemerality, love and beauty. There are examples from history where beauty and aesthetics are used against females as a weapon, as female engagement with beauty is belittled and portrayed as empty and superfluous. An example from history that lingers today are arts such as needlework, traditionally considered exclusive to the female sphere, being perceived to be a vacuous engagement with aesthetic rather than a serious attempt at realising beauty. Conversely, male painters and sculptors were considered in touch with divine aesthetic, possessing the ability to determine what is universally beautiful. By portraying attempts of female engagement with beauty as superfluous in comparison to their male counterparts, women are blocked from gaining empowerment through the realisation of beauty. This allows the dominant sex to define what is beautiful. I am interested in how these processes ultimately allow the dominant sex to seize control of the concept of beauty itself and how this control of beauty ascribes them power. What may not seem to have a purpose will serve subtler purposes (5). An example of this is in Giselle. Giselle’s descent into madness and subsequent death is portrayed as a beautiful act, one of the highest acts a women can perform. It is enhanced by her decision to return silently to her grave, rather than continue to harass men with the Wilis. The male creators of the ballet aestheticise their female protagonist’s destruction, utilising their ability to define what is beautiful to program the disappearance of the female. This functions in a similar way when women are kept out of other fiction making spheres such as sci-fi, film-making and book writing, their work and/or work made for women often relegated to “chick flicks” and “chick lit” rather than serious pieces of imagining. Limiting who gets to seriously participate in imagining futures and creating new worlds prevents the future from being designed with them in mind.

In my readings for this piece, I came across a popular refrain used during the Suffragette movement in Rebecca Solnit’s book Orwell’s’ Roses: “Bread for all, and roses too”(6). It is no surprise that the women, in using this refrain, demonstrate a knowing that they didn’t need to fight only for bread, which symbolised material equality, but also for equity of access to the subtler parts of life that are encompassed in beauty – roses(7). Beauty and aesthetics require time to tend to them personally. Investigating who gets the space and time to decide what is beautiful is important because beauty making is a vital act that imbues the actor with the power to imagine our collective future.

— words by Rachael Wisby

(1) Solnit, R. (2020). Recollections of my nonexistence (First). Granta Books.
(2) Solnit, R. (2020). Recollections of my nonexistence (First). Granta Books.
(3) Evan Alderson (1986) Ballet as ideology: Giselle, Act II, Dance Chronicle, 10:3, 290-304, DOI:10.1080/01472528608568956
(4) Solnit, R. (2020). Recollections of my nonexistence (First). Granta Books.
(5) Solnit, R. (2021). Orwell’s Roses (First). Granta Books.
(6) Solnit, R. (2021). Orwell’s Roses (First). Granta Books.
(7) Solnit, R. (2021). Orwell’s Roses (First). Granta Books.