We'd heard so much in advance about Jerome Robbins' newest ballet, "In Memory of . . .," there was danger the work itself might prove an anticlimax.

The Washington premiere Friday night, by the New York City Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House, dispelled any such thoughts decisively. Suzanne Farrell's haunting performance in the central role Robbins has created for her is a ballet landmark of its own -- it would be hard to think of another dancer or actress who could stain one's heart so rendingly, and by such invisible means.

The choreography, moreover, is not only another of Robbins' breakthroughs, to a level and terrain he hasn't before assayed, but also a kind of reassurance about the future of NYCB -- it tells us that great work will continue to emerge in the aftermath of the Balanchine era.

"In Memory of . . ." was inspired by Alban Berg's Violin Concerto and the "program" attached to it, in turn prompted by the composer's sorrow over the death of the 18-year-old daughter of a close friend. Many have speculated that Robbins' ballet may also contain veiled homage to Balanchine, a notion outwardly reinforced by the casting of Farrell in a work that is plainly memorial in some sense. People are free, of course, to read any meaning into a ballet they see in it. A first Washington viewing of the work, however, discloses no obvious reference of this sort, apart from the "Serenade"-like closing image of Farrell being borne aloft between two men.

Instead, the work confirms what the choreographer himself has said of it -- it follows Berg's general outline about a young woman who dies and is transfigured. Fundamentally, it is the music, with its aching pathos, its harsh storms and its beatific conclusion that dictates the form and contour of the dancing. If anything, the ballet gains from not being overly particularized; its gamut of significance encompasses all that is implied by a coming to terms with death, from the standpoint of both the one who dies and those who mourn a loss. Robbins' choreographic approach here, moreover, is more reminiscent of Antony Tudor -- both in its acid wistfulness and the ways the dancing figure is sculpted into poetic phrases -- than of Balanchine. The ballet is idiosyncratic and powerful enough, however, to make such comparisons beside the point.

In the beginning, Farrell is seen alongside Joseph Duell as a lover-suitor, but Farrell is clearly the focus. In a sudden backward drop to Duell's arms, in the shadowing of her eyes and her defensive arms, and in a lift into a downward plunging angle, Farrell lets us see that she is unconsciously prescient of her fate -- the clouds of doom gather from the start, in the gauzy music and the choreography. In the second section, Farrell and Duell are placed within a social milieu, a cluster of couples, and we see them share youthful ardor and dream in dancing that suggests games and lively waltzing.

All at once, it seems, Farrell is on her knees at stage edge, apart from the others and gazing fixedly at some unseen vision; the ensemble vanishes and Adam Lu ders enters forebodingly at the rear, approaching Farrell with menacing gesture and stride. As the music grows angry and jagged, the two dance the harrowing pas de deux that is the crux of the ballet. It is Death come to claim Farrell, and the dancing, within its classical molding and turbulent gestural embroidery, speaks of Farrell's recoil, resistance and ultimate defeat. Farrell has sunk to the floor, and Lu ders lifts her tenderly and bears her through a gate formed by three reappearing men of the ensemble, as Berg's score quotes the Bach chorale, "Es ist genug" ("It is enough"), with its message of resignation. In the final section, the melody of the chorale permeates the texture of the music and Farrell reappears, her hair loose and flowing, she and the entire ensemble bathed in Jennifer Tipton's golden light, as the ballet wafts to its Elysian conclusion.

Farrell's melancholy pilgrim is one of her most wrenching portraits. In the merest lift and curve of her shoulders worlds of elegiac regret are given voice. One is reminded of Baryshnikov's tribute to Astaire -- this is not dancing, but "something else." But the ballet also shows us new dimensions in the often oddly distant Adam Lu ders, who reveals a force and depth that redouble the work's impact. Duell, a princeling of a dancer, is splendid as Farrell's earthly consort, and the ensemble is as finely tuned as the poetic nature of the choreography demands. Not least in enhancing the strength of the performance was the bittersweet passion given Berg's music by solo violinist Cyrus Stevens and the Opera House Orchestra under the direction of Robert Irving.

The program began with Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments," substituted for his "Square Dance" because of injuries and illnesses within the company. It was a performance that found the troupe living up to its own highest mark to a degree seen only fitfully thus far during the current visit. Impressive as this was, reminding us of the still revolutionary-looking daring of relatively early Balanchine (1946), the evening somehow belonged to Robbins. Ending the program after the moving premiere of "In Memory of . . ." was a dashing, witty and brilliant performance of his "The Four Seasons," led by Lisa Hess, Kyra Nichols, Daniel Duell, Joseph Duell, Stephanie Saland, Maria Calegari, Sean Lavery and Jean-Pierre Frohlich, among the principals.