When artistic director Ashley C. Wheater put together a program for the Joffrey Ballet's Florida tour, he had in mind people who enjoy the arts but don't necessarily go to the ballet.
"I wanted to break the spell that people think of ballet as something that they're not interested in," Wheater said in a phone interview. "That it's just The Nutcracker or something similar to The Nutcracker. I'm trying to say that the art form is hugely broad and deep in its ideas and execution."
So the Joffrey will perform what Wheater describes as "a program of what has happened in the last 25 years in dance" Saturday night at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The Chicago-based company also has performances (with a somewhat different program, though the same aim) in Gainesville, Sarasota and West Palm Beach.
In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, with choreography by William Forsythe to an electronic score by Thom Willems, is a 1987 work of themes and variations that "demands that the audience really focus on the stage and the dancer," Wheater said. "Just one light from above. It's like a laboratory. Looking at what dancers are doing with their muscles and their brains and their bones."
Night (2000), choreographed by Julia Adam with music by Matthew Pierce, was inspired by the dream paintings of Marc Chagall. "Like Chagall's paintings, when you look at them they look so light and airy and yet there's also a little bit of darkness there," Wheater said.
Also on the program is Edwaard Liang's Age of Innocence, created for the Joffrey in 2008. Hedy Weiss, a critic with the Chicago Sun-Times, declared it "a newly minted masterpiece."
Liang's dance is said to reference the novels of Jane Austen. The music is an amalgam of Phillip Glass (his Third Symphony and his score for the movie The Hours) and Thomas Newman's score for the movie Little Children.
"The thing I really love about the piece is that it comes from a deep place," said Wheater. "As hard as the ballet is physically, there's a really beautiful emotional impact to it."
Wheater, a Scotsman who has been artistic director of the Joffrey since 2007, was in San Francisco last week for a screening of a new documentary film about the company, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance. The Joffrey is no stranger to the movies. Robert Altman's The Company (2003) starred Neve Campbell as a promising young dancer, James Franco as her boyfriend and Malcolm McDowell as the artistic director, based on Gerald Arpino, the Joffrey's legendary director and choreographer, who died in 2008.
One of the reasons for the Joffrey's prominence is its almost constant touring. In Florida, the 42 dancers will travel from city to city in a bus, along with a big truck loaded with costumes, props and everything else needed to put on an evening of ballet.
"It's an opportunity to show people that this is what's happening in the dance world," Wheater said.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.