San Francisco Ballet’s Program 4 is an homage to George Balanchine who could be considered the company’s guiding spirit. Two of the three Christensen brothers, who founded the company, studied and danced for Balanchine. As did Helgi Tomasson, the company’s Artistic Director since 1985. These men have done much to craft the company into the fleet and complex dancers that excel at performing Mr. B’s meticulous choreography.

"Must-See Balanchine” presents three exemplary pieces from the enormous catalog of Balanchine’s work in the company's repertoire. It’s all there: flashy extensions whipped into ecstatic heights, bravura speed and precision, intricate entanglements of dancers, whimsical wit and the loving nod to an adulation of Woman, all served up by SFB’s excellent and talented dancers.

The program opened with Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which premiered at New York City Ballet in 1972. It highlighted Balanchine’s long and extraordinary collaboration with the definitive composer of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky. A meeting of the greats, it shows both Stravinsky and Balanchine’s formidable innovative skills and originality. With the dancers in tights and leotards and no sets, this quintessentially neoclassical ballet is pared back to the essentials of movement. The structural concept follows that of a concerto, with the solo instrument pitted against the orchestra. Similarly, the two central duets, or Arias, are flanked by ensemble pieces in which one soloist is set among an ensemble of four dancers. 

Two choreographic characteristics are evident. First, that Balanchine had an enormous movement vocabulary – from Russian folk to American showbiz to classical ballet to modern dance. Permutations of all of are used in this piece, but what is most gripping about the combination is that every move seamlessly follows the next with an almost capricious lightness. No kinetic mishaps are allowed in this restless piece.

The second is that Balanchine choreographed for particular dancers and their strengths. These individual dancers were the best of the various types that dancers develop into. So one part, originally set on Kay Mazzo, is danced by Yuan Yuan Tan, and emphasizes the long and lanky extensions that define these dancers. Another part illuminated the steady speed and precision of Sarah Van Patten. Tiit Helmets provided breathtaking pirouettes, turning both en dehors and en dedans. And Luke Ingham excelled with lithe poses and airy leaps. Both sets of partners executed flawless duets characterized by continuous shifts of weight and balance. 

After intermission the company presented Prodigal Son, Balanchine’s last choreography for Serge Diaghilev before the impressario’s death in 1929. Diaghlev characteristically engaged the most intriguing artists of the time, providing music by Prokofiev and scenic and costume design by the expressionist artist Georges Roualt for this ballet. The painter designed one backdrop of a village and another of a desert tent’s interior, food lavishly set out on a table. The brush strokes of each are heavy and bold, the colors a swirling portrait of an ancient desert world thick with stone and retribution.

Joseph Walsh danced the role of the Prodigal Son, executing brilliant leaps as the young impetuous bad boy of the village. Following a gang of loutish drinkers he falls into trouble, and is seduced by the Siren, the elegant Sofiane Sylve, draped in a long red cape. The duet between them is sexual, though not in the hip-thrusting way preferred these days. Their movements are more covert and even strange, but it’s easy to see how Prokofiev, who conducted the premiere, was shocked and appalled. So much so that he disclaimed the ballet and refused to pay Balanchine his share of royalties.

The Siren and her bald devotees take everything from the Prodigal Son, leaving him stripped to the slightest of briefs, and revealing that Joseph Walsh deserves the Body Beautiful Award of the season. 

The Prodigal Son returns home on his knees, crawling up his father’s robes to curl like a small and vulnerable child in his father’s arms. Even in this early piece Balanchine’s narrative genius shines through the choreography, which contains many of the motifs and experimental dancing of the times.

The evening closed with Diamonds, one of Balanchine’s most admired pieces. The ballet presents everything imagined desirable in the heightened Romantic world of classical ballet. The corps de ballet weaves across the stage in kaleidoscopic formations, their white tutus and tunics redolent with glittering jewels. There is something anachronistic in so much formal beauty, but it is that very nostalgia which places it in the viewer’s imagination as a kind of dream of impervious beauty.

The central couple was danced by Vanessa Zahorian, who retains her stylish precision but projects warmth into the role, and newcomer Carlo di Lanno. He takes to the princely role easily and naturally. He’s a tall and assured partner, with a gracious and smoothly attractive style.