It would be easy, all too easy, probably, to read into the performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov in the title role of George Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son," as he made his Washington debut with the New York City Ballet at Kennedy Center last night, not just the intended Biblical moral, but also a kind of balletworld parable.

A defiant artist (Baryshnikov) leaves his spiritual home (Russia's Kirov Ballet, which spawned both him and Balanchine) to taste the profane pleasures of the world (the West and American Ballet Theatre), but finally returns contritely to the open arms of the Father (Balanchine). One doesn't need such supercilious constructs, however, to see in the intensity of Baryshnikov's performance that the role has a deep personal meaning for him.

It's also fascinating to observe how much his interpretation has deepened and how much more closely it is now meshed with the Balanchine conception, since the filming of the ballet, months back, for TV's "Dance in America" series.

The gestures are heavier, more stolid -- like the thickened look of Georges Roualt's decor -- and the entire force of those spectacular, raging leaps in the opening scene is now spent on emotional vehemence (rather than getting up into the air, which Baryshnikov does incomparably well in any case). The whole performance of the role (physically enhanced by a more reasonable costume than we saw on TV) is less melodramatic and more cogently dramatic, more inward.

All of which suggests that Baryshnikov is making steady progress toward the difficult goal he has set for himself -- to become, not just a distinguished member of the NYC Ballet, but a blood-brother, so to speak, of his fellow dancers.

Baryshnikov got a welcoming hand at his first appearance, and a considerable ovation afterward, but it was probably the urgency of his absorption in the drama that kept the audience from breaking into the somber tension of the ballet with callous bursts of applause after the pyrotechnical passages of the first scene.

It was, in any case, a tremendously gripping performance, brought to a point of nearly unbearable pathos in the final reconciliation scene. Karin von Aroldingen's Siren, at once lascivious and horrific, helped make the scene of the debauch as sinister as it needs to be, and Shaun O'Brien's Father was as poignant as ever.

"Prodigal Son" is a great, still disturbing throwback from the Diaghilev era (it also can be viewed as an expressionist "Giselle," with the Son as an erring Albrecht and those monsters, the Drinking Companions, as male Wilis).

The other two ballets of the nicely designed program -- Balanchine's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" and Jerome Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering" -- are modern, ensemble-oriented abstractions with just wisps of programmatic association.

The charming, cool, somewhat dilute "Tombeau" was elegantly set forth by eight couples from the corps de ballet. "Dances at a Gathering," though it has been danced more flashily and securely, received and inspired performance by company principals and soloists who precisely caught its mood of affectionate discourse.