“Distinctively SF Ballet” is the subtitle of the company’s Program 3, which opened Thursday night at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. It features three San Francisco choreographers distinctively connected to the San Francisco Ballet: artistic director Helgi Tomasson, former company principal dancer Val Caniparoli, and current corps dancer Myles Thatcher. Tomasson’s 2008 On a Theme of Paganini was part of the company’s New Works Festival that year, as was Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House. A theme emerges here, too: this season culminates in another New Works Festival (where Thatcher, the recipient of a 2015 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative award, will be premiering a new work).

Dores André in Caniparoli's <i>Ibsen's House</i> © Erik Tomasson
Dores André in Caniparoli's Ibsen's House
© Erik Tomasson

The Ibsen in question from Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House is the nineteenth-century Norwegian playwright, whose plays frequently challenged Victorian conventions, particularly those concerning the place of women in society. Characters from five of those plays are represented here, women battling constraints as wives, a widow, a housekeeper, in conflict with the men in their lives. Sandra Woodall’s appealing period costumes in five different shades sometimes contributed to an identity crisis – a trio of darker dress colors had similar hues that made me unsure of whom I was watching. The widow? The repressed wife? Sofiane Sylve or Ellen Rose Hummel? Credit to corps dancer Hummel, as well as Kimberly Marie Olivier, who both rose to the challenge in performing as beautifully as the three principals. Dores André, partnered by Vitor Luiz, was striking as Hedda Gabler in a flowing wine-red skirt, imparting stillness between moves, upper body composed yet eloquent. Jennifer Stahl as the widowed Mrs. Alving from Ghosts, whirled and leapt with a signature chest-thump movement that she passed on to partner Myles Thatcher. Sofiane Sylve brought the perfect blend of pathos and restraint as Nora from A Doll’s House, partnered by an elegant Tiit Helimets. Dvorák’s highly effective Piano Quintet No. 2 accompanied the dancers, a gorgeous rendition performed by musicians Cordula Merks, Craig Reiss, Yi Zhou, Eric Sung and pianist Roy Bogas.

The program opener, Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini, felt very Balanchine, from the positions of the dancers on the stage in the opener, to the way the dancers filled and emptied the stage with brisk, articulated moves and lightning speed. The late Martin Pakledinaz’s mix of costume designs helped keep the large cast—twenty-three dancers – differentiated.

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's <i>Ghost In the Machine</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's Ghost In the Machine
© Erik Tomasson
Rachmaninov’s eponymous composition featured Roy Bogas on the piano joining the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Leads Sasha De Sola, Wei Wang, Max Cauthorn, Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz delivered solidly, particular in the pas de trois movement featuring the first three dancers, and the adagio set to the Rachmaninov’s well-known 18th Variation, featuring the latter two.

Myles Thatcher’s Ghosts in the Machine, a world première last year, seems even better here in its return. The “ghosts in the machine” can be seen as the invisible ways in which we respond negatively to others’ negative cues, often causing us to spar and create conflict. The ballet, and theme, also shine a light on the ways in which one person or group can make a positive difference through effort and community, and thus influence the world – a much-needed message for today’s society. Alexander V. Nichols’ intriguing wire sculpture, reminiscent of harp strings or bridge suspension cables, brought texture to the backdrop. Susan Roemer’s blue Lycra costumes (men’s slacks and women’s tops threaded with color and black leotard trunks and bare legs for women), helped keep the emphasis on the dancers’ gorgeous technique.

SFB in Tomasson's <i>On A Theme of Paganini</i> © Erik Tomasson
SFB in Tomasson's On A Theme of Paganini
© Erik Tomasson

The cast of ten engaged in pairs and ever-shifting groupings, sometimes sparring, other times supporting, in lifts and catches. Frances Chung and Jaime Garcia Castilla, in the opener, delivered a boldly defiant face-off. His partnering was spot-on, her leaps and arabesques powerful. An ensemble passage of brisk striding in a later movement spoke of the indifference of a fast-moving culture. Sasha De Sola represented the voice of vulnerability, appearing at times alone, woebegone, until once again noticed by partner Steven Morse, and soon, the entire group. The strong cast also included Dores André, Carlo Di Lanno, Isabella DeVivo, Esteban Hernandez, Ellen Rose Hummel and Max Cauthorn. Thatcher’s fresh, inventive choreography is set to music by Michael Nyman, a collection of seven pieces that allows for both the propulsive and the pensive. The latter was beautifully illustrated when a pas de deux gesture got shared, from two people to four, to eight, onward until the entire group embraced the movement. It’s a nice message to impart in this era of contention, negativity and aggression. One can only hope society takes note.