Next month, Joffrey Ballet dancer Charlene Gehm will be gliding assertively across the TV screen, her smart black dress and carefully coiffed hair blown by unseen wind machines in a designer perfume commercial.
But at tonight's opening of the Joffrey's engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, she will be a shy nymph in knee-length golden braids and sandals who trembles in the presence of a handsome and self-possessed young faun.
The ballet is Vaslav Nijinsky's "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," a brief but mesmerizing mood piece about curiosity, fear and desire in a lakeside setting on a hot summer afternoon, set to the languorous music of Claude Debussy.
Created 75 years ago by the reigning ballet virtuoso of his time, "Faune" still looks fresh, even retaining the sensual thrill that profoundly shocked the audience at the 1912 premiere.
The Joffrey's 20-year track record in reviving landmark works has enriched the dance world immeasurably and has brought the company critical acclaim. But the highly specific styles of the repertory can make fiendish demands on the dancers.
In "Faune," the faun and nymphs move as if they are edging around the surface of a Greek vase, with heads and feet turned parallel to the stage.
"The body positions are hard to maintain," Gehm said. "It takes a lot of concentration for balance with your body facing front yet your nose and feet going side to side. . . .
"The music is so wonderful, but it's not . . . conducive to the kind of movement you're doing," she said. Continuous eye contact with the faun helps keep the movement from becoming too "stark and cold."
And then there are some practical considerations: "With golden brocade on your head," Gehm noted, "you have to move a certain way because it gets stuck on the costume."
In Gehm's mind, a nymph is something like a deer ("They have a scared quality but they're warm animals"). To put herself in the proper mood, she tells herself the story of the piece every time she performs it.
"Faune" is one of the Joffrey's meticulous re-creations of ballets originally made for the early 20th-Century Ballets Russes, a hothouse of inspired collaborations among rising young choreographers, designers and composers, masterminded by impresario Serge Diaghilev. Another Diaghilev-era creation, Leonide Massine's brash, bizarre "Parade" of 1917 (to the music of Erik Satie) will be on Wednesday night's program.
(Alas, the company's latest Ballets Russes offering, Nijinsky's long-lost "Le Sacre du Printemps"--laboriously reconstructed by dance historian Millicent Hodson--will not be on the Orange County program. It premieres Oct. 30 at the Music Center in Los Angeles.)
The Joffrey also snaps up notable works from other eras, from Arthur Saint-Leon's "La Vivandiere Pas de Six," a mid-19th-Century charmer by the choreographer of "Coppelia" (on Wednesday night's program), to Paul Taylor's fast and frisky "Arden Court" of 1981 (on tonight's bill).
Friday through Sunday, the company will perform Frederick Ashton's luminous, pastoral "La Fille Mal Gardee," a full-evening work based on an 18th-Century ballet. Set to John Lanchbery's tuneful arrangement of music from several sources, including the anonymously composed original score, "Fille" tells the story of a humorously misguided betrothal.
The company also will be dancing several ballets created especially for it by co-artistic director Gerald Arpino, among them, "Birthday Variations" (Tuesday), "The Clowns" (Thursday) and "Light Rain" (Wednesday), which was introduced to Orange County last fall at an Arts Center performance by a group of Joffrey dancers.
A choreographer much maligned by the critical establishment for creating empty flash and dazzle, Arpino tends to be a favorite of the general public.
"He's doing what people want, showing them what they're all about at the moment," Gehm said. "He's a very entertaining person, and that comes out (in) his choreography. . . . He loves to be close to his dancers. . . . He calls us his 'babies.' "
After 11 years with the company, Gehm no longer dances in Arpino's works, which tend to feature rising younger "stars" of this officially starless company.
Although there are times when she feels "it would be nice to be a little more known as individuals," Gehm praises the company's policy of emphasizing a broad and ever-changing repertory.
"I find it healthy we don't get stuck with one identity," she said. And when, in her hectic off-stage life, she rushes from modeling assignments to acting class to studies in voice and playwrighting, "people's reaction is always, 'Oh, you're with the Joffrey!' That's nice."