("Degas and the Dance"; On WGBH, Ch. 2, as part of "Great Performances"; Today, 8-9 p.m.
("Balanchine: A Tribute to Excellence"; On WGBH, Ch. 2, as part of "American Masters"; Today, 9-11 p.m.)
What might have ensued had Edgar Degas, who died in 1917, met George Balanchine, who was then still a student in St. Petersburg? The French painter, after all, was influenced by ballet masters, and the Russian-American choreographer by visual artists. The temptation to fantasize about such a meeting arises from tonight's pairing of television programs on WGBH-TV (Channel 2): "Degas and the Dance" at 8 p.m., followed by "Balanchine: A Tribute to Excellence" at 9 p.m.
"Degas and the Dance" is an outgrowth of the eponymous art exhibition that visited Detroit and Philadelphia last year.
The two-hour Balanchine program dates from 1984 (though Channel 2 says it has never aired the show). Its welcome appearance now is part of this year's celebration of the centennial of the great choreographer's birth. The tribute is full of gems: black-and-white footage of Balanchine coaching his earliest muses; a poker-faced dialogue between him and composer Igor Stravinsky that's a hoot. Degas made more works based on his observations of the Paris Opera Ballet than on any other subject. They were radical in their unconventional vantage points: backstage; from the highest balcony; cropped so that most of the painting was bare floor, with the dancers herded into the background.
In "Degas and the Dance," the artist is portrayed by an actor drawing contemporary Paris Opera Ballet dancers, a ploy that comes off as hokey. The more serious problem, though, is the way the program presents that company in the late 19th century. After peaking with the Romantic Ballet movement, around mid-century, the Paris Opera Ballet went into a slump that coincided with the period when Degas was watching it so closely. The show fails to acknowledge that decline, which helps explain why so many Degas ballerinas are executing steps incorrectly, even by the standards of their day.
The commentary on the much-loved sculpture "Little Dancer, Aged 14," that icon of seeming innocence, fails to mention that the model was a real girl whose mother sold her into prostitution. (The program does observe, in a general way, that this was the fate of many dancers at the time.)
Where the program succeeds is in pointing out that Degas was breaking new ground in realism, depicting dancers not only in performance, but scratching, stretching, or yawning, rarely capturing them in what a balletomane would deem a picture-perfect pose. The show also distinguishes him from the other Impressionists: Degas's compositions were calculated and painted indoors.
The lackluster dancing of the Paris Opera in the early 20th century paved the way for Diaghilev's bold new Ballets Russes to conquer the city. It was Diaghilev who brought Balanchine to Paris to dance and choreograph from 1924 to 1929, the year the great impresario died, and it was for Diaghilev that Balanchine made two masterpieces, "Apollo" and "Prodigal Son," both still in the repertory worldwide.
Once a work was done, Balanchine moved on -- unless the talents of a particular dancer inspired him to revive it, as he did with "Prodigal" in 1978, tailoring it to Baryshnikov. The rehearsal footage is poignant, with Balanchine teaching the younger man to crawl on his knees in repentance.
Alexandra Danilova, one of Balanchine's earliest ballerinas, recalls that "other choreographers would let you fall on your nose, but they wouldn't change [the steps]. It's because Balanchine had so many ideas. They just came pouring out of him."
Some of the most illuminating scenes feature different generations of Balanchine dancers in the same work, which debunks the myth that his dancers weren't supposed to stress their individuality.
On his famous preference for female dancers, the choreographer explains that it's simply that women's bodies can do more. In a rare moment of boasting, he says that in the matter of using those bodies, "almost nobody knows [how]. I think just Petipa and I."
Women dancers were the principal inspiration for Balanchine and Degas. But the two men viewed ballerinas completely differently. To Degas, they were moving objects; to Balanchine, they were goddesses.
Globe on NECNHere's what's happening on "Around the Globe" today on NECN:
12:30 p.m.: "Globe at Home" -- Book Editor Jim Concannon and Hillel Stavis, owner of WordsWorth Books in Harvard Square, suggest new titles worth a second look.
4 p.m.: "Around the Globe"
6:30 p.m.: "New England Business Day"
8 p.m.: "NewsNight" Schedule is subject to change.
On Boston.comNoon: Globe Child Caring columnist Barbara Meltz answers parenting questions.
1 p.m.: Talk winter travel with Eoin O'Carroll of smarterliving.com.
Talk of the dial
6 a.m. WBIX-AM (1060) -- "Early Exchange." Guests: Andy Kessler, author, "Wall Street Meat: My Narrow Escape From the Stock Market Grinder," discusses his new book that provides an insider's view of investment banking scandals; Jim Jubak, senior markets editor, MSN Money. Hosts: Dave Anthony & Bonnie Bleidt.