As this particular ballet draws to a close, the young hero has already seen his sweetheart brutally raped and murdered and been beaten to a pulp by a gang of pool-hall toughs. He confronts his nemesis -- a sadistic sheriff. They battle viciously; the youth gets the better of things, and proceeds to cut the throat of his enemy and scalp him, whereupon he is instantly shot down by the sheriff's deputies in a deafening blast of gunfire. The curtain falls as we see the youth's lifeless torso projected on a scrim, and hear a woman's voice wailing in mournful ululation.

Such was the nature of the work that brought on the most tumultuous ovation heard for a ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House over the better part of a decade. It was Michael Smuin's "A Song for Dead Warriors," the "protest" ballet about native Americans that won its choreographer an Emmy earlier this year in a national telecast, and it proved to be -- not altogether unexpectedly -- the sensation of last night's program, marking the Kennedy Center debut of the San Francisco Ballet.

It's hard to know whether the reaction -- which saw most of the audience standing, shouting, whistling and cheering through numerous curtain calls -- was stimulated more by the ballet's straight-out "message," its eye-popping theatricality and special effects, or the spectacular bravura dancing the piece accords particularly to the cast's male contingent. No doubt all three elements contributed to the triumph, as well as the dramatic urgency of the principals -- Antonio Lopez as the tragic Indian brave, Evelyn Cisneros as his beloved and Vane Vest as the sheriff.

The ballet offers powerful testimony to the particular skills and gifts of Smuin as a choreographer. A background equally grounded in classical ballet and popular theater -- cabarets, musicals, films, TV -- has empowered his exceptional command of stage resources in all their dimensions. "A Song for Dead Warriors" employs giant projections, enormous mock-ups of a bison herd, 20-foot-tall sheriff-totems, ominous shadow play, and jarringly realistic violence in support of its melodramatic substance. But it also gives scope to some extremely telling dance scenes -- the powwow of Indian chiefs hallucinated by the hero, with its immense, space-devouring leaps; Lopez's passionate duet with Cisneros, sealing their love; and the dance of the pool-hall thugs, wielding their cues like phallic lances.

The inspiration for the ballet, created in 1979, came from Smuin's memories of his Montana boyhood. There's no question either of its sincerity as a statement, or of its impact, as the Opera House audience demonstrated anew last night. Still, one can come away with a queasy feeling about the ballet's showy veneer. On television, where the dance work itself was framed within documentary materials, the craft and conviction of "A Song for Dead Warriors" seemed uppermost. On stage, live, minus the objective context, the glitzy and sensationalist aspects of the production become more conspicuous. No wonder the ballet provoked controversy.

It was this sort of controversy -- too much show biz for a classical company? -- that surrounded Smuin's last several years as co-artistic director of the San Francisco company and led to his ouster late last year. The Kennedy Center visit is his last official act as director (he'll be replaced by Helgi Tomasson this summer), though Smuin will continue to serve as principal guest choreographer for two more seasons.

All one can say is that on the evidence of last night's program, Smuin has certainly left the company in superb shape for his successor. It isn't just in figures -- the size of its budget, the number of its dancers -- that the troupe ranks among the nation's most significant and distinguished classical companies. These dancers are brilliant, polished, fast, powerful, handsome and vibrant. One can only find their like today among the world's handful of outstanding troupes. And there's something distinctively Pacific Coast about their style -- a special spaciousness and sunny robustness. They were, moreover, shown off to beautiful advantage on the Opera House stage -- the debut was long overdue.

The evening's one weak spot was its finale -- Smuin's recent "Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21," a lackluster attempt at neoclassical style, rather indifferently danced except for the winning lyricism of Tracy-Kai Maier and Alexander Topciy in the middle movement. The work looked all the more pallid in view of the earlier half of the evening, which featured two ballets by Lew Christensen, whose death at 75 last year deprived the troupe of its co-director and longtime mentor.

Christensen's pieces -- "Vivaldi Concerto Grosso" and "Airs de Ballet," the latter set to music by Gretry -- are exceptionally strong in precisely those respects in which Smuin's Mozart ballet seems deficient. Christensen, like George Balanchine, who was his early tutor in dance, displays a marked sensitivity to the form and nuance of classical music. His choreography goes with the flow, and, again like Balanchine, enables one to see the musical syntax through his wonderfully analogous dance structures.

Kathleen Mitchell and Val Caniparoli were the remarkably eloquent pair in the slow movement of the Vivaldi ballet, and Topciy and Gina Ness the expert leading duo in the lighter veined Gretry. This evening, the troupe introduces a second program featuring Smuin's "To the Beatles" and Christensen's "Con Amore."