Andrew Veyette and Sterling Hyltin in Peter Martins’s staging of August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide,” at the Kennedy Center. (Paul Kolnik/ )
Dance critic

What a change we saw in the New York City Ballet, in the second program of its Kennedy Center engagement. Some of the ballerinas wore woolens and heeled character shoes, while others donned white tulle and fairy wings. The men bared their legs in kilts.

The spirit of 19th-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville had taken over, and it suited the company splendidly.

“La Sylphide,” Bournonville’s tragic love story between a man and a misty highland creature, is not the usual fare for NYCB, a company with a strong contemporary focus. That 1836 ballet, staged by ballet master in chief Peter Martins, stands in sharp contrast to the crisp works the company performed on its first program here, earlier in the week. But the courage quotient feels the same.

Dancers tend to groan when describing Bournonville’s light, jumping steps. His style is deceptively difficult, because it should also appear calm. With so much emphasis on the feet, the upper body must be open and relaxed. It’s easy to see if shoulders tighten or if the swift and fluttering footwork is imprecise.

But the mixture of high athleticism and technical finesse at NYCB — and astute casting — made “La Sylphide” shine. Sterling Hyltin polished every detail in the title role and mastered all the paradoxes of a supernatural creature. With high, springy jumps, she truly seemed to fly, always silently and with ease. Her feet stroked and teased with soft, pliant precision. There was an aspect of starlight about her, a lovely match for the music by Herman Severin Lovenskiold.

As James, the Scottish laird who falls for the Sylph and abandons his bride on their wedding day, Andrew Veyette took a lovably dopey, regular-guy approach. Georgina Pazcoguin as Madge, the witch who forces James to taste his own medicine, possessed grande-dame flair; at one point, as she tossed a scarf around her neck, you’d think she was channeling Coco Chanel.

“He entertains with steps” is what George Balanchine so loved about Bournonville, and the clarity of the steps was the great virtue of this program, which also included a bright rendering of “Bournonville Divertissements.” This sampler of scenes from other ballets by the Danish master was originally staged by the late Stanley Williams, the Danish-trained teacher of many Balanchine stars, including Martins.

The echo of that training was apparent most especially in the sparkling pas de six of the “Divertissements,” where the warmth and spontaneity of corps de ballet member Indiana Woodward stood out. (Woodward will dance the lead in “La Sylphide” on Saturday afternoon.)

“Divertissements” is a sweet, bubbly showpiece. Bournonville’s philosophical side is apparent in “La Sylphide.” Madge the witch sees to it that moral failings are punished, and James’s jilted fiancee gets her wedding after all.

Is Madge wrong? As painful as it is to see nice-guy James’s moment of reckoning, the lesson underlying it reveals Bournonville’s humanity. In running after an intangible ideal, James hurt the real woman who put her trust in him.

To be sure, pursuing dreams is the 21st-century way. We can look at James as the unchained entrepreneurial spirit in a kilt. But dashing carelessly in a new direction is also, in this ballet’s view, selfish. By chasing the flickering promise on the horizon — whether fame, lovers, validation of one sort or another — one can wound the living loyalties close at hand.

It may be a fading virtue, but at least in “La Sylphide,” human feelings hold the spotlight.

The New York City Ballet performs “La Sylphide” and “Bournonville Divertissements” on Saturday and Sunday, with cast changes. $29 to $149.