Ballet Character Focus: Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis

Giselle is the quintessential Romantic ballet and is found in ballet company repertories across the world in some form or another. From the traditional productions, to reworked modern takes, it has captivated ballet audiences since it’s triumphant debut all the way back in 1841. The life and death of titular character Giselle is the main focus of the ballet, and when she dies under tragic circumstances and is fated to become one of the supernatural Wilis, her love for the man who betrayed her ultimately saves him from death, and allows her to rest in peace.

There are four other main characters in the ballet besides Giselle; her lover Albrecht, game keeper Hilarion, Gieselle’s mother Berthe, and Myrtha, Queen of the Willis. The character we’re going to focus on is the Queen of Willis herself, Myrtha, who only appears during Act II but is still a very integral part of the ballet.

The role of Myrtha was created on Adèle Dumilâtre (pictured at the top of the page in the featured image), a famous French ballerina who played Myrtha at the start of her career with Paris Opera Ballet. The leader of this group of supernatural women who have died before their wedding day, Myrtha is a fascinating and strong character. The Wilis been wronged in their life and seek revenge on only men who have wronged other women like them. In Act II Myrtha listens to Giselle’s pleas but is unyielding in her decision to spare Albrecht, ordering the Wilis to enchant him into dancing until he either dies or survives until the sun rises at dawn. It is a disservice to dismiss Myrtha as just being an evil character, she is much more complex than that. Her unwillingness to forgive any man makes you wonder what happened to Myrtha during her life; whether she was a Queen then,  if she was one of the first of the Willis, and why she can’t forgive any man. All we know for certain is she is the fiercest character in Giselle by a mile.


Myrtha, HBIC
 

The magic of YouTube allows for us to watch Dame Monica Mason perform the role of Myrtha, and also watch her coach the role years later to Hikaru Kobayashi (pictured above in the gif with Natalia Osipova).



 

 

This wonderful clip (below) from Dutch National Ballet’s Giselle demonstrates quite literally how Myrtha (Igone de Jongh) is a true Queen. The way she summons and commands the Wilis, and the Wilis respect for her is present in every one of their movements as they surround her and sink into a reverence when they are before her.

 

 

In this clip from Paris Opera Ballet’s production (below), as Myrtha walks forward down the center of the Wilis (from 2:41), all of the women on stage hold their arms in a position that echoes the movements of a woman cradling an absent child. These small details make the Willis dances in Act II all the more poignant, evoking melancholy emotions of sadness and loss for what these women had taken away from them and can never have.


 

Not only is Myrtha incredibly complex as a character, but she is also one of the most physically challenging roles for a ballerina, with her solos portraying her supernatural power by including lots of bourrées, jumping and arabesque hops. In the first video in this post, Hikaru Kobayashi compares the solo of Myrtha to a mens variation due to the amount of jumping included. Myrtha is an incredible ballerina role, and a very complex character. We wish the casting for Myrtha was announced in advance at all companies just like the 2 principal roles of Giselle and Allrecht as she is just as important to the ballet. For now, we will keep dreaming!

Sources/Further Reading
Adèle Dumilâtre Wikipedia Page

Giselle, The Story of the Ballet

Giselle Wikipedia Page

Myrtha Unveiled 

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