Joffrey Ballet to perform at UMSL

March 1, 2012
The Telegraph
Kathie Bassett

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ST. LOUIS — Known for its edginess and passion, the Joffrey Ballet has gathered works by three of the world’s most innovative choreographers and musicians in a program that challenges preconceived notions of ballet as an art form.

Coming to the Touhill Performing Arts Center for three performances on March 9 and 10, the Joffrey Ballet presents a program that the company’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, hopes will shatter the stigma of people believing ballet is simply one-dimensional, conjuring images of only "The Nutcracker" at Christmastime.

"The Joffrey is one of the great dance companies and hasn’t performed from its repertoire here since 2001," said Michael Uthoff, the artistic and executive director of Dance St. Louis, who danced with the Joffrey in the 1960s.

"It’s nice to see how the company is changing and moving forward but also staying true to its roots: continuing to connect with its audience in terms of physicality and presenting dance as sophisticated but devoid of pretentiousness," he said.

The program includes two new works and a highly influential one that has become a modern classic in the past quarter-century.

Commissioned by Wheater, Edwaard Liang choreographed the sumptuous piece, "Age of Innocence" (2008), for the company from a score by minimalist composer Phillip Glass. Liang’s inspiration was the 19th century ballroom of Jane Austen’s heroines, where the mere touch of a hand suggested great breadth of emotion: passion, love, longing and even frustration.

"Liang has reshaped country dance in a very beautiful way and has made it a contemporary idea," Wheater said. "But it’s not pretty."

The middle piece, British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s "After the Rain" (2010), set to the classical music of Arvo Pärt, is in two sections that are strikingly different in tone. The first suggests a bold urgency, characterized by intricate lifts; the second shifts to a slower pace with a more tender tone.

The explosive "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" (1987), choreographed by American William Forsythe set to an electronic-punk score by Thom Willems, is considered a masterpiece of contemporary ballet. The dancers’ positions are skewed, and duets are deliberately pulled off-balance, furthering an "aesthetic of randomness."

"Forsythe really took the technique of classical ballet to a different place in this piece," Wheater said. "It was absolutely groundbreaking, emphasizing a more physical way of telling a story, and Forsythe continues to have great influence on choreographers like Liang and Wheeldon."

Wheater said that these choreographers have kept ballet a relevant art form by pushing it forward and making it more of an expressive idiom.

Founded in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, the company is known for pioneering experimental pieces while also continuing to perform classical, important works that have had a transformational impact on the ballet world.

"We want to show the depth of our company," Wheater said. "Ballet is a journey, and people need to come and take it in.

"The world of dance is quite ephemeral, and people need to be there in the moment that it’s happening with the dancers," he continued. "I know it will be truly moving."

Tickets for the 2 p.m. Saturday matinee cost $40; evening tickets for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday range from $40 to $60. The Touhill Performing Arts Center is located on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus.

Wheater and Uthoff will host a free program, "Speaking of Dance," in the Touhill’s Terrace Lobby at 7:15 p.m., prior to the 8 p.m. performances, and at 1:15 p.m. prior to the Saturday 2 p.m. performance. They also will host an informal post-performance conversation, "Speak Easy," also in the Terrace Lobby, immediately after the shows.

For more information, call the box office at (314) 534-6622, Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., or visit www.dancestlouis.org.