SAN DIEGO — "Giselle" has a reputation as the "Hamlet" of the dance world.
The title role in this quintessential romantic ballet has been the most coveted in the classical repertory since 1841, when it was created as a showcase for the great Carlotta Grisi.
"Giselle" takes the ballerina on an emotional roller-coaster ride--first as a simple peasant girl, then into madness and death (when the duplicity of her beloved is exposed) and finally into the ethereal realm of an otherworldly being. It requires a ballerina at the height of her physical and dramatic powers.
The California Ballet's prima ballerina, Denise Dabrowski, has danced the role for the company three times, and her performances have earned kudos for their technical excellence and dramatic depth. But when the troupe unveils its latest incarnation of "Giselle" this weekend at the Spreckels Theatre, there will be a new Giselle waiting in the wings.
Dabrowski will dance three of the four performances, including Friday night's opening. But Karen Evans, a home-grown California Ballet dancer with several solo roles to her credit, will debut in "Giselle" during the Saturday matinee.
This production will mark the company's maiden appearance at the Spreckels, and it seems fitting that an enduring masterpiece like "Giselle" should be the first local product to grace the stage of this historic hall.
"We decided to go for broke and open the season downtown," said artistic director Maxine Mahon. "We think it will help us attract audiences."
"It's a perfect theater for dance," said Charles Bennett, who has been an absentee associate director most of this year. "It's fabulous."
Bennett is back in town to stage the season opener (choreographed by the company's former ballet master, Marius Zirra) and to coach Evans.
Will Evans' Giselle be a reflection of Dabrowski's successful interpretation?
"Oh, no," Bennett said. "I've discouraged that idea. The two women are completely different. They approach things very differently. They hear the musical phrase differently, and they have a different line. I have to shift gears to stage it."
Although Bennett has no qualms about singing her praises, Evans admits to being intimidated.
"I'm very nervous," she whispered during a break from rehearsal. "This is the first dramatic role I've ever done. I'm taking a lot of feedback from Chuck (Bennett), but Denise is more of a dramatic dancer. Maybe my Giselle will be lighter. I don't think I'll reach the dramatic depth she does."
"That's not true," Dabrowski interrupted.
"She's doing very well," Bennett said. "Karen's will just have a different look."
In addition to rehearsing for the taxing title role, Evans is preparing for the part of Myrtha, the ghostly Queen of the Wilis--a role she will dance when Dabrowski stars.
"It's really hard because they're both so different in style," Evans said. The Queen of the Wilis glides through her variations with very controlled movements and icy indifference, in contrast to the heightened emotionalism and energetic high jinks of Giselle.
Partnering both Giselles is San Diego native William George, who has danced with the troupe on and off for years.
"I thought I was retired," George quipped, "but then I realized I could still do it. My back (which has kept him out of action several times in the past few years) stopped hurting. Now it's my knee." (Shortly after that interview, George had some trouble with his knee, so the company scheduled Ballet West's Mark Landham as an alternate Albrecht.)
George is not a newcomer to the role of Albrecht, but he's still grappling with its inconsistencies.
"He's very hard to nail down," George said. "Albrecht misleads Giselle, but I don't see him as a real villain."
Also cast in solo roles are Patrick Nollet as the jealous Hilarion, Sylvia Poolos and Kevin Engle (who will team up to dance the exuberant peasant pas de deux), and Debra Rumney (Queen of the Wilis during the Saturday matinee).
This production will go to the Tijuana Cultural Center on Nov. 1 and 2.
"Our plan is still to develop a season in Tijuana," Mahon said. "Sometimes it's difficult to arrange it because they don't book far enough in advance. But they really want us, and we really want to work with them on a long-term basis."