"Apollo" has been one of George Balanchine's touchstone ballets for decades, and as the New York City Ballet's performance at the Kennedy Center (the first ever there) illustrated Saturday, it remains so for powerful reasons. The first real collaboration between Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky, who both regarded it as a turning point in their careers, the original, "Apollon Musagete" of 1928 not only inaugurated the era of neoclassicism in ballet but brought it to a since-unsurpassed pinnacle.

With the most sparing of means, the ballet depicted the birth of Apollo, his upbringing at the hands of the goddesses Terpsichore (dance), Calliope (poetry) and Polyhymnia (drama), and his ascension to Parnassus -- a succinct parable on the fusion of the arts under the aegis of theatrical dance. Structural economy and academic rigor furnished the "classic" side of the ballet, along with its thematic basis in Hellenic myth. Austere stylization and modern, "distorted" mutations of steps, rhythms and harmonies accounted for the "neo" elements.

Over the course of time, Balanchine has pared the staging by degrees, eliminating period costumes in 1957 and both the remnants of setting and the opening birth scene just last year. The current Kennedy Center version is pure distillate, leaner and less overtly theatrical than any of the past, yet miraculously, the essence stands undisturbed.

Unlike, say, Mikhail Baryshnikov, who gave the role a pagan ferocity, Peter Martins, the company's reigning Apollo of recent times, is almost serenely godlike throughout, barely hinting at the maturation process implied in the original narrative. Of Saturday's two performances with identical casts, the evening was appreciably the more shapely and eloquent, though Martins and his Muses -- Suzanne Farrell, Kyra Nichols and Karin von Aroldingen, danced beautifully on both occasions. Now that "Apollo" has been introduced here, one hopes it will become a staple of Kennedy Center visits.