Among the many amazing and treasurable things about the New York City Ballet's all-Stravinsky program Tuesday night, opening the company's second week at the Kennedy Center Opera House, was the fact that it was completely sold-out well in advance.

It's true that the program, which included George Balanchine's "Apollo," "Orpheus," and "Agon," contained within it three of the supreme ballet masterworks of this or any age. But it's also the case that these works, each of them in their various ways abstract, austere and demanding, are far from the most easily accessible items in the NYCB repertory, and not exactly the most superficially glamorous or spectacular either. The avidity of the public response tends to affirm that today's ballet audience in Washington both recognizes and craves the best in choreographic art, with or without the added lure of "superstar" performers.

None of the trio of ballets is new -- "Apollo" dates from 1928 and the Diaghilev era in Paris; "Orpheus" came two decades later, on commission from Ballet Society, one of the NYCB's earlier incarnations; "Agon" appeared nearly another decade later, in 1957. No sampling of just three works, including this one, could possibly summarize or convey the full temperamental range of a man whose balletic outpourings have also included such wildly divergent pieces as "Stars and Stripes," "Vienna Waltzes," "Concerto Barocco," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "Bugaku," among dozens of others.

Yet Tuesday evening's triptych did perhaps epitomize one of the most illustrious and fecund artistic partnerships of the century -- the one between Balanchine and Stravinsky. Of the many Stravinsky scores Balanchine has treated choreographically, only a relatively small handful represent actual working collaborations between ballet master and composer. "Orpheus" and "Agon" are among these; the rest were dance realizations of pre-existing Stravinsky scores. But such is the depth of artistic affinity between the two men that all of Balanchine's Stravinsky ballets feel like collaborations -- the congruence of means and style and expression is too close to suggest anything else.

Besides their joint authorship, "Apollo," "Orpheus" and "Agon" have several other features in common. All refer in some way to Greek antiquity; all have that stringency of design--the "less is more" principle--which choreographer and composer alike espoused; and all are examples of "neo-classicism," that is, the merger of 20th-century innovation with academic tradition, though the relationship of new and old is quite different in each case.

Beyond this, it is the distinctions between them that rivet attention and define the individual genius of each ballet.

"Apollo" was, in its original form, at once a distilled narrative (the birth, life and apotheosis of Apollo) and a parable about dance as a fusion of the arts of music, poesy, drama and gesture. Through the years, Balanchine has stripped away its more literal trappings--scenery, costumes, story-like elements. What's now left is the parable, much abstracted, with only vestigial references to "plot." The score, for strings alone, remains a perfect musical counterpart.

"Orpheus" is unique even in the Balanchine canon: with the further collaboration of artist Isamu Noguchi, the ballet becomes a kind of scenic oratorio, and for the only time in his career Balanchine shows the impact (if not quite the influence) of Martha Graham, not only in the Noguchi decor and Greek subject, but in characters like the Dark Angel, and in poses and gestures suggesting subliminal forces. The narrative, moreover, though heavily stylized, is entirely explicit in its depiction of Orpheus' tragic quest for Eurydice in the nether regions.

"Agon," by contrast, with its caustic, serial score, is pure naked abstraction, with no hint of narrative, danced in black-and-white practice garb, and stretching the classic N.Y.C. Ballet: Dazzling in D.C. By Alan M. Kriegsman

Among the many amazing and treasurable things about the New York City Ballet's all-Stravinsky program Tuesday night, opening the company's second week at the Kennedy Center Opera House, was the fact that it was completely sold-out well in advance.

It's true that the program, which included George Balanchine's "Apollo," "Orpheus," and "Agon," contained within it three of the supreme ballet masterworks of this or any age. But it's also the case that these works, each of them in their various ways abstract, austere and demanding, are far from the most easily accessible items in the NYCB repertory, and not exactly the most superficially glamorous or spectacular either. The avidity of the public response tends to affirm that today's ballet audience in Washington both recognizes and craves the best in choreographic art, with or without the added lure of "superstar" performers.

None of the trio of ballets is new -- "Apollo" dates from 1928 and the Diaghilev era in Paris; "Orpheus" came two decades later, on commission from Ballet Society, one of the NYCB's earlier incarnations; "Agon" appeared nearly another decade later, in 1957. No sampling of just three works, including this one, could possibly summarize or convey the full temperamental range of a man whose balletic outpourings have also included such wildly divergent pieces as "Stars and Stripes," "Vienna Waltzes," "Concerto Barocco," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "Bugaku," among dozens of others.

Yet Tuesday evening's triptych did perhaps epitomize one of the most illustrious and fecund artistic partnerships of the century -- the one between Balanchine and Stravinsky. Of the many Stravinsky scores Balanchine has treated choreographically, only a relatively small handful represent actual working collaborations between ballet master and composer. "Orpheus" and "Agon" are among these; the rest were dance realizations of pre-existing Stravinsky scores. But such is the depth of artistic affinity between the two men that all of Balanchine's Stravinsky ballets feel like collaborations--the congruence of means and style and expression is too close to suggest anything else.

Besides their joint authorship, "Apollo," "Orpheus" and "Agon" have several other features in common. All refer in some way to Greek antiquity; all have that stringency of design -- the "less is more" principle -- which choreographer and composer alike espoused; and all are examples of "neo-classicism," that is, the merger of 20th-century innovation with academic tradition, though the relationship of new and old is quite different in each case.

Beyond this, it is the distinctions between them that rivet attention and define the individual genius of each ballet.

"Apollo" was, in its original form, at once a distilled narrative (the birth, life and apotheosis of Apollo) and a parable about dance as a fusion of the arts of music, poesy, drama and gesture. Through the years, Balanchine has stripped away its more literal trappings--scenery, costumes, story-like elements. What's now left is the parable, much abstracted, with only vestigial references to "plot." The score, for strings alone, remains a perfect musical counterpart.

"Orpheus" is unique even in the Balanchine canon: with the further collaboration of artist Isamu Noguchi, the ballet becomes a kind of scenic oratorio, and for the only time in his career Balanchine shows the impact (if not quite the influence) of Martha Graham, not only in the Noguchi decor and Greek subject, but in characters like the Dark Angel, and in poses and gestures suggesting subliminal forces. The narrative, moreover, though heavily stylized, is entirely explicit in its depiction of Orpheus' tragic quest for Eurydice in the nether regions.

"Agon," by contrast, with its caustic, serial score, is pure naked abstraction, with no hint of narrative, danced in black-and-white practice garb, and stretching the classic vocabulary to outer limits with its fantastic, intricate, witty and profound anatomical deformations of the ballet lexicon.

To do full justice to Tuesday night's performances would require an essay in itself. Peter Martins, doing double duty in the title roles of both "Orpheus" and "Apollo" (substituting for the injured Ib Andersen in the latter) danced with inspired severity, as an immutable divinity in "Apollo," and as a tortured soul whose torment is betrayed only in movement or stance in "Orpheus." Mel Tomlinson lent an aptly eerie touch to the Dark Angel in "Orpheus," and deservedly shared the evening's biggest ovation with Heather Watts for their incisive, rhythmically thrilling duet in "Agon." Karin von Aroldingen's Eurydice and Suzanne Farrell's Terpsichore were sublimely eloquent in their differing modes; Kyra Nichols and Maria Calegari were Farrell's superb companion muses in "Apollo."

Last night's performance reviewed on page D13. vocabulary to outer limits with its fantastic, intricate, witty and profound anatomical deformations of the ballet lexicon.

To do full justice to Tuesday night's performances would require an essay in itself. Peter Martins, doing double duty in the title roles of both "Orpheus" and "Apollo" (substituting for the injured Ib Andersen in the latter) danced with inspired severity, as an immutable divinity in "Apollo," and as a tortured soul whose torment is betrayed only in movement or stance in "Orpheus." Mel Tomlinson lent an aptly eerie touch to the Dark Angel in "Orpheus," and deservedly shared the evening's biggest ovation with Heather Watts for their incisive, rhythmically thrilling duet in "Agon." Karin von Aroldingen's Eurydice and Suzanne Farrell's Terpsichore were sublimely eloquent in their differing modes; Kyra Nichols and Maria Calegari were Farrell's superb companion muses in "Apollo."