IOWA CITY - The Joffrey Ballet made a magnificent return to Iowa City with sold-out performances Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. (3/7 and 3/8/15)

One of the foremost dance companies in the world, The Joffrey has a 40-year history with Hancher. But it hasn't danced on a Hancher season since the summer 2007 River to River tour, in which the Chicago company leapt from Council Bluffs to Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Muscatine for free outdoor performances honoring Hancher's 35th anniversary.

Then the Floods of 2008 wiped out the venerable Hancher Auditorium, one of Iowa's best and largest spaces for presenting dance concerts. The Joffrey responded to the flood by staging Hancher benefit performances in Chicago and Des Moines in September 2009.

The Hancher name has been carried around the world through the many storied commissions the company has mounted for the University of Iowa, but Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater said it was time to come back to Iowa City. Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson agreed, so Wheater designed a Hancher program well-suited for the UI's intimate Space Place Theater, seating about 200 enthusiastic audience members.

A dozen dancers rotated in and out pieces featuring two to six performers. These cutting-edge commissions and works explore the range of ballet in 21st century styles, from tutus to cowboy boots, set to contemporary beats. All are glorious in scope and artistry, eliciting shouts of "bravo" and an instant, well-deserve standing ovation at the conclusion.

Two movements from "Son of Chamber Symphony" opened the show, wrapping most unusual angles and arm movements around a classical look of ballerinas in stiff, circular tutus and men in traditional full bodysuits with non-traditional cutouts, swirls and details mirroring the push and pull of old and new.

The amazing choreography by Stanton Welch takes the classical ballet form with perfect pirouettes, leaps and spins, and ends them with unusual foot, arm and hand positions to create a very contemporary yet regal feel. Other traditional movements give way to gymnastics, finger flicks, grand plies with feet wide apart, and birdlike prancing - all to a contemporary orchestral score by John Adams.

The second movement, a pas de deux, begins in silence before the music swells into a full romantic twining of bodies, with gorgeous overhead lifts by Dylan Gutierrez and beautiful extensions by April Daly. Their movements grew more modern as the piece progressed, yet retained a very classic feel and look.

We were so close we could hear their breathing as see their bodies glisten under the hot lights in the very warm room.

Expecting the unexpected became the hallmark of the evening. Utterly romantic Rachmaninov piano lifts the "Bells" pas de deux to new heights as dancers Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili explore pathos and passion, ending in a kiss.

The show's second half featured even more juxtapositions of forms, with solo violin beginning the pas de deux between Anastacia Holden and Miguel Angel Blanco in the second movement of "Maninyas," in which an especially spectacular lift ended with Holden in a vertical, upside down position behind Blanco's back, before she left in full plies across the stage as Jaiani took her place amid the droning of lower strings under the violin.

The program's longest and most unusual work injects line dance and cowboy boots into "The Man in Black," danced with playful abandon and heels stomps to lesser-known songs by the instantly recognizable voice of Johnny Cash. Longtime Hancher audiences remember choreographer James Kudelka for his stunning 1986 Hancher commission, "The Heart of the Matter."

The final piece, "After the Rain," is a pas de deux of extraordinary beauty by Christopher Wheeldon. Bending, swaying and arching movements placed Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in exquisite embraces and sensual, delicate lifts that belie the difficulty and sheer artistry required of dancers at the peak of their perfection. As the couple melted onto the stage, shouts of bravo shattered the dark silence, in a fitting tribute to Hancher patrons' love affair with The Joffrey.

It's a pas de deux firmly poised to continue when the new Hancher Auditorium opens in the fall of 2016.

Wheater was wowed by his Saturday sneak peek at the facility nearing completion, already creating an exciting form farther from the river yet near the beloved site of its predecessor.

"It is nothing short of absolutely world class," Wheater told Saturday evening's audience. "In terms of balance, sightlines, rehearsal space and audience, it is magnificent. It's a truly iconic opera house for the 21st century."

And he can't wait to bring the full Joffrey company there. Neither can we.