To experience three performances by the New York City Ballet in the space of two days is to enter and succumb to a realm of utter elegance, light, wit and passion.

To most of us, "ballet" summons images of toe shoes, tutus, grace, pyrotechnics, fairies and swans, and not much more. This company, schooled and sculpted by one of this century's true geniuses, George Balanchine, goes light-years beyond these stereotypes; they move like deer and exotic birds, take risks, assume distorted yet stunning shapes and display an almost eerie understanding of phrasing and stasis. Certainly there are dancers who stand out from the rest, but the entire ensemble shares that cool, quicksilver, totally modern style.

Not every work performed this weekend deserves praise -- both Peter Martins' "The Magic Flute" and John Taras' "Souvenir de Florence" seem more overblown classroom exercises than solid choreographic inventions -- but the bulk of Saturday matinee and evening and Sunday matinee was given over to Balanchine ballets, some of them hard and streamlined as skyscrapers, some of them wistful and sparse, all of them gems set to exquisite scores by Tchaikovsky, Hindemith, and especially Stravinsky. To list their names will not suffice, but perhaps isolated images may help to evoke some part of their brilliance.

The centerpiece of "Mozartiana," Suzanne Farrell, skitters across the stage on point, with four tiny girls attending her. She makes us focus on her arms, as they weave about her head, on her hands, as they tremble before her face. While marveling at the perfection of her movement, we mourn with her as well.

Then comes "Orpheus," with its Noguchi-designed boulders, lyres, tubes that coil about the dancers' legs and torsos. Peter Martins, who needs only stand motionless to set our hearts beating double time, rips off his mask, watches his wife Eurydice (Karin von Aroldingen) fall dead in an instant and recoils as she is swallowed up under the curtain. In "Apollo," Martins does an about-face, playing serene god to three very different muses (Farrell, Kyra Nichols, Maria Calegari). He partners this trio single-handedly; linked yet distant, they wheel around him like moons around a planet. "The Four Temperaments" and "Agon," performed in practice clothes, are essays on all that is new, bold, sensuous. The women jut their hips and use their toe shoes to stub out invisible cigarettes; the men's hands become paws, their backs arch and curve like jellyfish. The relationships ring bells in our heads -- this is life, but on a sublime, rarified level.