For every ballerina, there's a coveted role that epitomizes what it means to be a dancer.
Maybe it's the dual good-versus-evil persona of Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake." Or the love-struck Juliet from William Shakespeare's tragic drama.
For Marianna Tcherkassky, it was Giselle. As the daughter of a dancer and an opera singer, she was exposed to the part early on.
"I don't know why. I immediately kind of identified with the character, and I really loved the drama," she says. "I didn't know if I wanted to dance, but I wanted to be Giselle."
After an illustrious career as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre -- and many performances as Giselle -- Ms. Tcherkassky, now ballet mistress for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, is helping another generation of ballerinas prep for the part as PBT gets ready to open its 43rd season with "Giselle." With PBT music director Charles Barker leading the orchestra, the ballet opens Friday for three performances at Benedum Center, Downtown.
" 'Giselle' is one of my most favorite ballets. I'm very, very close to it, and so is my wife, Marianna," says artistic director Terrence S. Orr. "I think to open up with the orchestra doing a major romantic classical ballet, there's nothing higher than that."
Its premiere performance was in 1841 at the Paris Opera Ballet, with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot and music by Adolphe Adam. The story follows a romance between a peasant girl and a nobleman that takes a fatal turn when betrayal is revealed. In the afterlife, Wilis, or spirits who've been jilted by their lovers in life, aim to inflict their revenge, but Giselle and Albrecht's connection resonates beyond the grave. It made history as one of the earliest story ballets to be set to an original score.
The upcoming PBT production marks the 10th time the company has mounted the ballet and the first time in almost a decade.
"When you deal with classics, you don't read a classic novel just once. Intelligent people read it over and over and see more in it," Mr. Orr says. "The same thing happens with a ballet like 'Giselle.' It's lasted through time because it's truly a masterpiece and it has a lot to say."
Similarly, for dancers, reviving the work is another opportunity to discover new nuances in it.
"I was lucky to have so many performances," Ms. Tcherkassky says. "With each performance, you learn new things."
Her debut was a whirlwind that unfolded when the dancer cast as Giselle fell ill. Mikhail Baryshnikov asked her to fill in for a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
"I had about five days' notice," Ms. Tcherkassky says. "I had not officially rehearsed the ballet, but in my mind I had been practicing it all my life."
The chance to reprise the role came a few months later, this time in New York City when a Royal Ballet dancer was unable to make it. Soon after, she was promoted to principal rank at ABT and spent the next couple of decades perfecting the part, eventually earning praise from New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff as "one of the greatest Giselles America has ever produced."
"The role is so rich," Ms. Tcherkassky says. "Every time I do it, you know, I can do this better, I can bring more magic to it. It's a wonderful process."
Now others are looking to her for guidance as they prepare to dance Giselle for the first time.
"We're getting to do the ballet and tap into all that knowledge," says principal dancer Alexandra Kochis, one of the dancers who will portray Giselle next weekend. Principal Christine Schwaner will share the part. "She knows all this stuff about how other people did it, but she never says, 'You have to do it this way.' "
Instead, Ms. Tcherkassky outlines various approaches but leaves it up to the dancers to craft one that reflects their styles and interpretation of the ballet.
"I always kind of start off by encouraging them to create a history with the characters," Ms. Tcherkassky says.
"It's a real acting tour de force for the ballerina to perform it," Ms. Kochis says. "The story is just threaded throughout everything that you do."
One challenge is conveying in the second act the other-worldliness of Giselle in the afterlife.
"It's very soft and lengthened and long," Ms. Kochis says. "For your whole career, you're sort of drilled to be on the music. ... But now we actually have to let it go and hang there for that extra second."
The goal, Ms. Tcherkassky says, is to create a performance that commands attention.
"It's like inviting the audience to come into this village, into this world. It's like a secret. The softer you talk, the closer people come in to listen," she says.
"There's something so subtle and so beautiful. ... You really want to draw them into you."
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com.