The New York City Ballet in Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Photo: WNET

Ballet and mass culture have always made for uneasy bedfellows. At its best, the art form cultivates certain chilly virtues—refinement, grace, discipline—that do not readily translate to mediums like film or television.

The distinction is one between admiration and identification. To watch a prima ballerina execute a series of perfect chaine turns is to marvel at her spunk, her elegance, her (hopefully) sylph-like form—knowing that these qualities are not common. On the other hand, film and television seek to elicit empathy in the viewer, even when it is wildly misplaced. Why do we root for the pitcher on the mound? Because we secretly believe our fastball is, or could be, as good as his.

Consequently, when ballet is represented on screen, it is often denuded of its rarefied qualities. Many ballet films—from the turgid The Turning Point (1977) to the lamentable Black Swan (2010)—offer juicy backstage rivalries; such soap opera–style plots are far easier for audiences to relate to than depictions of icily perfect pirouettes.

This inherent tension has resulted in a state of confusion among audiences who experience ballet through mass culture. In the eyes of some, athletic prowess is to be prized over artistry, as though ballet were a cousin of figure skating (in which technique and artistry tend to be cordoned off) or even gymnastics. The very title of a popular ballet series on the cable network Starz—Flesh and Bone—emphasizes physical exertion rather than elegance. This should surprise no one who has followed the enforced democratization of ballet: after all, strength, which can be achieved with a gym membership, is far easier to attain than talent, which is largely inborn.

This week, the New York City Ballet will step into this muddy, confused environment with a too-rare appearance on the national scene: On Friday, WNET’s Great Performances will air the first of two broadcasts presenting highlights from the company’s three-week stay at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris last summer. The second installment will air on February 24. Each show is introduced by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins and presents different ballets, although all are set to music by French-born composers and choreographed by George Balanchine. Conductor Daniel Capps directs l’Orchestre Prométhée for all but one piece (Sonatine, featuring the pianist Elaine Chelton).

The broadcasts are valuable in and of themselves, of course, but they are especially so at this moment. It is worth asking how many viewers across the country—weaned on false impressions of what ballet is or ought to be—will have ever witnessed dancing this pure?

Balanchine’s 1980 work Walpurgisnacht Ballet, which he plucked from a production of Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, kicks off Friday’s program. Yet there are no operatic frills in this pared-down excerpt: at the outset, a corps made up entirely of female dancers files out in front of a purple backdrop while wearing simple costumes in variants of the same color. The dancers’ long hair is corralled in ponytails—a detail to remember as the ballet progresses. (It is difficult to imagine a Balanchine ballerina with short hair—Allegra Kent in a bob?)

Although the principals Sara Mearns (substantial, sturdy) and Lauren Lovette have their moments—the latter executing a lovely sequence of pique turns—the ballet belongs to the corps, who are at times frighteningly feral. As the ballet winds down, their hair is loosed and becomes the most uncontrollable element on stage, their movement causing it to whip every which way. In separating Walpurgisnacht Ballet from its original context in Faust, Balanchine transformed it into a tribute to unfettered femininity.

It is tempting to interpret the choreographer’s famous proclamation—repeated here by Martins in reference to Walpurgisnacht Ballet—that “ballet is woman” as a kind of affirmation. In fact, the statement is ambiguous—neither pro- nor anti-woman, but a recognition of the gender’s dominion over dance. Indeed, the second part of Friday’s program offers La Valse, from 1951, in which women are hardly celebrated as pure, virtuous creatures. Featuring music by Maurice Ravel, the ballet unfolds in a ballroom decorated like a funeral parlor. Huge, billowing curtains—which, depending on the light, appear to be either dark blue or black—are the only adornment.

La Valse begins with a trio of ballerinas wearing long white gloves, which seem to be the source of some mysterious, untamable, and altogether intoxicating power—perhaps Balanchine’s comment that women revel in power every bit as much as men? The ballroom empties before the arrival of Sterling Hyltin—a striking, blonde Texan with just the right blend of agility and insouciance—who toys with her partner, Jared Angle. The two strike mocking poses, regarding each other warily, before engaging in a macabre pas de deux.

For a time, the ballet settles into a more or less conventional waltz, with assorted couples frequently changing partners. Then, after having earlier been spotted lurking behind the curtains, the personification of Death (an excellent, poker-faced Amar Ramasar) re-emerges. With a courtier in tow, Ramasar seeks out Hyltin, wooing her with a necklace and mirror, from which she at first recoils but quickly cottons to: like Narcissus, Hyltin decides that, yes, her beauty is a thing to behold. Trying on the black gloves he brings, Hyltin dances gently with Ramasar before collapsing on the floor, seemingly the victim of being too easily flattered. The ballet is a darker, more frenzied variation on Balanchine’s 1934 masterpiece Serenade.

Ravel also supplied the music for the first ballet featured in the February 24 program, 1975’s Sonatine. Danced against a bluish backdrop—Balanchine’s sets often resemble gigantic versions of Barnett Newman’s color field paintings—the ballet muses on the flightiness of young love. The comings and goings of a temperamental couple—danced by the charming Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz—confirm Balanchine’s views on the fairer sex: if there is any doubt that the choreographer considers his female dancers savvier and shrewder than their male counterparts, consider the remarkable passage here in which the lithe, puckish Fairchild escorts De Luz off-stage, tiptoeing as she guides him backward by the hands.

The program concludes with 1947’s Symphony in C, in which Georges Bizet’s music is a template for non-stop motion. From the bouncing tutus of the corps to the intricate parts for the soloists—including, in this production, the vivacious Tiler Peck and the regal Teresa Reichlen—the kinetic ballet at times resembles a perpetual motion machine.  

If Symphony in C registers less strongly than the ballets that preceded it, it is only because it is the most familiar—and much of the pleasure of the broadcasts comes from their exoticism: Walpurgisnacht Ballet, La Valse, and Sonatine aren’t exactly fixtures on public television. To be sure, earlier Great Performances episodes presented City Ballet in stronger ballets and with even finer dancers: I think particularly of a 1993 “Balanchine Celebration” broadcast featuring segments from Agon, with Darcey Bussell and Lindsay Fischer, and of Stars and Stripes, with Margaret Tracey and Damian Woetzel.

Yet, in an age of watered-down dance, City Ballet and WNET should be commended for putting together two programs of strange and sensational offerings.