IT'S no secret that San Francisco Ballet's connections to George Balanchine have been close. Lew Christensen was one of Balanchine's leading dancers before taking over direction of the San Francisco company in 1951, and Helgi Tomasson, its present director, was a leading light at Balanchine's New York City Ballet for many years before coming here. The company's opening night of its winter-spring season was full of references to Balanchine, from his own ``Pas de Trois,'' to Peter Martins's ``Calcium Light Night,'' and the world premi`ere of Tomasson's ``Handel - a Celebration.'' The effect was to demonstrate the continuity of a tradition while also building upon it.
The ``Pas de Trois,'' a company premi`ere, is a little work that Balanchine set to music from Glinka's ``Ruslan and Ludmilla'' in 1955. In it, Balanchine looked back to Petipa and the bravura dances of classical 19th-century ballets. While respecting the form and character of such dances, he infused them with his own spirit. Speed and glittering point work are the main ingredients, with an occasional turned-in leg or flexed foot to remind us that we're seeing a variation on a 19th-century theme.
On opening night, Evelyn Cisneros, Karin Averty, and Anthony Randazzo assumed the roles created for Patricia Wilde, Melissa Haydn, and Andr'e Eglevsky. Cisneros's solo was marked by darting point work and small jumps, Averty's by quick leaps and turns, and Randazzo's by still larger leaps with beats. Altogether, ``Pas de Trois'' is a tour de force, kept to jewel-box proportions by its emphasis on small, intricate footwork. Cisneros, Averty, and Randazzo reveled in its complexities, making the dances look as if they would be hard for anybody but them.
Tomasson's ``Handel - a Celebration'' is set primarily to segments of the ``Water Music,'' ``Royal Fireworks,'' and ``Alcina.'' The ballet's mood is governed by the splendor of the music, but it has a lightness, too, as if we were seeing Versailles in summer. The work is ambitious, consisting of 10 sections for 31 dancers and enabling Tomasson to make full use of the company he has been shaping into his own instrument over the past four years. He gives his young dancers wonderful things to do, and they serve him and the dance with a grave effulgence.
Tomasson's references to Balanchine are like Balanchine's to Petipa: They look back to the past master. Balanchine is present in the choreography's intricacy of design, in the forceful relationship of corps de ballet to soloists, and in alterations of the classical vocabulary. But Tomasson gives the work his own sense of lyricism and a passion that lies just beneath the surface of the choreography. The impetus and shape he gives to large numbers of dancers is his own, too, as is his sensitive musical phrasing. Above all, Tomasson expresses a consuming love of dance that has formed a common thread in his ballets since he came to San Francisco.
``Handel'' begins with the corps de ballet sweeping forward in unison, which gives an immediate sense of grandeur to the proceedings. After this initial dance, there are variations for a number of soloists in different combinations. Particularly notable were solos for Cynthia Drayer, Shannon Lilly, and Elizabeth Loscavio, in which each dance ended with difficult turns. In a quartet for two couples, Pascale Leroy did slow, diving arabesques supported by Lawrence Pech, while Wendy Van Dyck and Timothy Fox were set in more agitated motion around them.
A bravura variation by Mikko Nissinen and Andr'e Reyes was marred by Nissinen injuring himself midway through. But Joanna Berman and Anthony Randazzo were resplendent in a pas de deux in which she approached him in low, stately lunges, from which he swept her up in ecstatic lifts.
Peter Martins, director of New York City Ballet, choreographed ``Calcium Light Night'' in 1977 to music of Charles Ives. It, too, refers to Balanchine, but in the astringent style of ``Agon.'' ``Calcium Light Night'' is a formalist study for two dancers that looks as if it had been made by carefully accumulating discrete parts until the material reached a high level of density. There are four solos for the man, three for the woman, and two duets. Christopher Boatwright gave the movement elegant authority, while Tracy-Kai Maier was mercurial and edgy.
The other work on the program (actually the opening one) was a company premi`ere of Jerome Robbins's ``Interplay,'' set to music of Morton Gould. This 1945 work seems to survive out of sheer good spirits. It now constitutes a piece of Americana, depicting a time of youthful innocence. San Francisco Ballet gives ``Interplay'' the kind of insouciance it needs - good-natured kids at play. Christopher Stowell was notable as the group tease and showoff, and Elizabeth Loscavio and Timothy Fox made the game of love look no more serious than holding hands.
The San Francisco Ballet season, which began Jan. 28, continues through mid-May with eight programs in repertory, including Tomasson's ``Swan Lake,'' which premi`ered last season to wide attention. The company will make its Paris debut on May 18 as part of the Festival de Paris.