"Giselle," which artistic director John Hart does not hesitate to call "the greatest classical ballet of all," will be performed eight times by Ballet West, beginning on Friday, Nov. 9, in the Capitol Theatre.

Further performances will be danced on Saturday, Nov. 10, and Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 14-17, at 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees each Saturday.In one of the world's great stories of devotion beyond the grave, the village maiden Giselle is wooed by the young Duke Albrecht, in disguise. When his identity is revealed, his deception proves too much for Giselle's weak heart, and she dies of grief.

When Albrecht comes mourning to Giselle's grave, he is beset by the Wilis, vengeful spirits of maidens who died before their wedding days, who force any hapless man they encounter to dance himself to death. Giselle rises from her grave and sustains Albrecht until dawn, when the Wilis lose their power; then she sinks back into oblivion.

There is no oblivion for this ballet, which has never left the boards since its premiere in Paris in June 1841 - making it just short of 150 years old.

The story of "Giselle" is by Theophile Gautier, adapted from a popular German legend. Original choreographers were Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, with music by Adolphe Adam, and Carlotta Grisi (Perrot's wife) creating Giselle. The ballet was an immediate international success and was danced thoughout the world during the next 10 years. It made its way to Russia in 1842, where it remained in the repertory of the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, with changes by Petipa.

The Diaghilev Ballets Russes presented "Giselle" in Paris in 1910, with Karsavina and Nijinsky, and it continued in France through the '30s, in various versions. But Ballet West's version came via England - specifically from Nikolai Sergeyev, regisseur at the Maryinsky Theater from 1904-17, who brought choreographic and production notes for "Giselle" and other classics with him when he fled the country during the Russian Revolution.

It was his version that was first staged in England by the Camargo Society in 1932, with Olga Spessivtzeva, Anton Dolin, Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois. Adam's music survived only in the piano score and has been reorchestrated.

During the '30s, the Vic-Wells Ballet (later Sadler's Wells, now the Royal Ballet) produced several versions of "Giselle." In 1938 John Hart joined the company, dancing "Giselle" in 1941 with Margot Fonteyn, just before he joined the Royal Air Force. He claims no greatness for those early performances. "We were both very young," he said, "but even then there was no doubt of Fonteyn's abilities. She was intelligent and determined and had that indefinable star quality. It was no surprise that she became prima ballerina."

Before he retired from dancing in 1957, Hart danced a couple of hundred heroes in "Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake" and "Giselle." "Over the years I danced `Sleeping Beauty' with nine different ballerinas and `Coppelia' with 13," he said with a smile. Among his favorite partners was Violetta Elvin, who he said had warmth and communication similar to Fonteyn but retired early in favor of marriage.

As ballet master of the Royal Ballet, Hart rehearsed "Giselle" frequently. And he mounted two productions on his own - one in San Diego starring Deborah Hadley and Anthony Dowell, and another for PACT Ballet of Johannesburg, South Africa, with Natalia Makarova and Ivan Nagy.

The latter he attempted to bring into the 20th century - not in a major departure from the original, but enough so to know he was somehow out of kilter.

"With that production I became convinced that the only way to stage `Giselle' is the original way," he said, "which owes much to the advent of gas lighting, with which the theatrical world was obsessed at that time. They loved the ghostly effects you could get with the flickering lights.

"The lights first came to popularity with Meyerbeer's opera `Robert le Diable' (1831) in which the ballerina Maria Taglioni led a group of dead nuns from their graves, who shed their habits and danced seductively to tempt the hero.

"The mystery and mysticism of that lighting gives insight into staging of the second act. But the story must be clear to the audience, not carried to 19th century extremes," said Hart. "The first, peasant act must come across as part of the same ballet, whatever its differences in style. The peasant pas de deux can seem like an interpolation, which it was, to mollify the reigning ballerina in Paris, who was incensed when Grisi was given the role of Giselle."

He sees Giselle with her threefold assignment - carefree peasant girl, madwoman and disembodied spirit - as a much harder assignment than either the Swan Queen or Sleeping Beauty. "Those require more the techniques that you learn in the studio," he said, "but Giselle is much more."

He insists that all the dancers, not just Giselle, make the transistion from peasantry in the first act to the mysticism of the second act. The fundamental element in doing so is to keep the arms floating and fluid, he explained, which requires tremendous concentration. "Your basic teaching is that the legs and body do the dance and the arms follow. In this case, we do the opposite; the arms lead, and the rest of the body follows."

All the dancers must be involved in the mad scene and in the mime, he said, and they do it better here than anywhere he has worked.

"This company is very attentive," he said. "They listen, they are quieter than the Royal Ballet." He likes to look for and bring out individuality, believing that the public is more interested in that than in seeing a drilled corps where movement becomes automatic. "In this dance I encourage every girl, whether peasant or Wili, to invent her own story, be a person," he said.

For Ballet West, four ballerinas create the role of Giselle: Lisa LaManna (who will retire from the company following these performances), Erin Leedom, Wendee Fiedeldey and Jane Wood, with three danseurs as Albrecht: Robert Arbogast, Jeffrey Rogers and Raymond Van Mason. Bruce Caldwell and Peter Christie alternate as Hilarion with Lisa Lockerd as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Jennifer Demko and Jiang Qi, Maggie Wright and Jeffrey Rogers dance the peasant pas de deux. The sets for "Giselle" are designed by Peter Cazalet, with costumes by David Heuvel.

Tickets at $6-$40 are on sale at the Ballet West box office in the Capitol Theatre, Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 524-8333. Or those wishing to subscribe may call the new subscriber services department, 524-8338.

- A BALLET GUILD SYMPOSIUM on "Giselle" is free to the public Thursday, Nov. 8, at 6:15 p.m. in the Capitol Theatre balcony. After a lecture and slide presentation on the history of "Giselle," participants may watch the first act dress rehearsal at 7 p.m., followed by refreshments.