WHEN BALLERINA Michele Jimenez first tackled the role of the sensuous, cigar-making gypsy Carmen in 2001, her performance was lauded as "riveting . . . commanding and self-assured" by The Post's Sarah Kaufman. It's still hard to believe that the soft-spoken, dark-haired dancer, just 22 at the time, had the grown-up chops to capture such a lusty hothead on stage.

Then as now, Jimenez, the Washington Ballet's ballerina of the moment, served as choreographic muse to Septime Webre, the company's artistic director. His balletic distillation of Georges Bizet's beloved opera -- which is being reprised with Jimenez again in the lead -- posits Carmen as a landmark freethinking feminist.

"It's such a wonderful role," says Jimenez, who grew up in the Dominican Republic. "It has everything: a sense of play, of drama, everything. It's technically challenging, dramatically challenging. I'm very lucky." She shares the part with fellow company member Brianne Bland, who dances Saturday and Sunday afternoons and will no doubt add her own unique take to this unfettered gypsy.

The ballet is the centerpiece of the Washington Ballet's first program of the season, which also features George Balanchine's sweepingly graceful "Serenade" and Twyla Tharp's sassy, assertive paean to Ol' Blue Eyes, "Nine Sinatra Songs."

"Many originally assumed Carmen was a wayward, loose woman getting her comeuppance," Webre says. "But I view her as the first modern woman of the theater." In the ballet, the tempestuous Carmen falls for a soldier, then falls out of love, a faithlessness for which she pays "the ultimate price, but nonetheless dies free," Webre says.

Jimenez, meanwhile, brings greater emotional depth to her dancing even as she enters her seventh season with the Washington Ballet. In February, she lost her mother, who had endured many years of grueling cancer treatments. Jimenez's voice catches as she recalls the woman who, for many years, shepherded her daughter's dance career by seeking out the best teachers, driving her to lessons and performances, sewing costumes and lending a hand behind the scenes at Santo Domingo's National Theater. There, even as a teenager, Jimenez had prominent roles in the city's ballet company.

"I already had the opportunity to perform Carmen," she says, explaining how first-time jitters have given way to deeper explorations. "Now I have a chance to go back and analyze." She acknowledges, too, that her mother's death, still an open wound, has played an important role in her maturity as a dancer.

Just back from her first trip to Santo Domingo since her mother's death (where she played Carmen as part of a Washington Ballet tour), Jimenez says: "It was wonderful to go back on the stage where I grew up. It felt so natural." And she felt her mother's presence beside her: "I really miss my mom, but I know she was there."

"The things that you go through in life, the good and bad experiences, growing up . . . you bring all of that into your character. Everything deepens. Every emotion you feel more. And yet," Jimenez pauses and takes a small breath, "you're looking for the reasons why things have to happen."

THE WASHINGTON BALLET -- "Carmen," "Serenade" and "Nine Sinatra Songs." Wednesday through Nov. 6. Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

Michele Jimenez once again steps into the title role in Septime Webre's "Carmen." "It's technically challenging, dramatically challenging," she says.