The curtain went up at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall last night on Nederlands Dans Theater in Sehnsucht and Schmetterling (“Homesickness” and “Butterfly,” in German) and the pleasure of seeing these magnificent dancers was heavily diluted by the machine-gun-like choreography and leaden attempts at humor.

© Nederlands Dans Theater's Sehnsucht
© Nederlands Dans Theater's Sehnsucht

Beethoven’s ecstatic Symphony no. 5 was practically bludgeoned to death – recalling a similar massacre many years ago of no. 7 by an army mobilized by Maurice Béjart – though his Piano Concertos nos. 3 and 4 escaped with minor injuries.

And the appeal to a hipster audience with ironic, faux-folksy songs-about-love-songs by indie pop group The Magnetic Fields (“The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be,” “How F***ing Romantic,” “Underwear,” you get the idea) largely fell flat, thanks to the completely un-ironic cavorting, snorting and posturing of the men and women identically attired in drab dresses and snoods reminiscent of the uniforms worn by women who worked in munitions factories during World War I.

British-Spanish choreographic duo Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, whose dances appear to form the backbone of NDT’s current repertory, have displayed a lighter, surer touch in the past. Their visual inventiveness, however, remains enthralling, as evidenced by the spellbinding set and lighting designs, and their decision to bleed the first work into the second, raising the curtain about two feet during intermission to give us a voyeuristic glimpse of the stagehands busily striking the Sehnsucht set and erecting the Schmetterling, while dancers goofily pranced around on the apron.

Hopes ran high in the first ten minutes of Sehnsucht as Silas Henriksen sensuously folded and unfolded his ripped physique to the strains of Maurizio Pollini exploring the heart-rending second movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 3, while the god-like pair of Medhi Walerski and Parvaneh Scharafali contemplated the wreckage of their relationship inside a claustrophobic cube suspended in mid-air. The cube spun ninety degrees and the pair found themselves standing on what had previously been a wall.

Walerski and Scharafali’s tiny world continued to spin every few minutes or so, and Lightfoot and León used a variety of fascinating acrobatic moves to steady the couple – paying homage, perhaps, to the 1951 classic Royal Wedding, in which a love-struck Fred Astaire dances on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room, a feat enabled by a rotating set. Yet interest waned, as Walerski and Scharafali’s interplay did not appear to lead anywhere, while Henriksen remained completely self-absorbed, oblivious to his neighbors’ predicament.

This sense of stagnation was temporarily relieved by a chorus of dark angels – men and women in identical black pyjama bottoms, led by Walerski – who dashed hither and thither with great fire and purpose. Despite the trauma to Beethoven’s Fifth, some of the night’s finest dancing emerged in this segment. The men in this company, led by Walerski and Henriksen, shone all evening – notably a trio of Garen Scribner, Rupert Tookey and Roger Van der Poel, and a fiery Fernando Hernando Magadan – showing off explosive allegro technique with blessedly few of the tics, grimaces and grunts that randomly punctuate the later choreography with no apparent underlying motivation than to annoy us.

While the effect of having the women dance topless was compelling – creating a sense of solidarity with the men in having them execute exactly the same movements in the same garb – health and safety issues cannot be ignored. Women typically need to secure their breasts when dancing, especially in fast-paced, high-impact choreography; if an artistic decision requires them to take the bare-breasted risk, then the men should be similarly required to hurl themselves through space without the security of their dance belts – it only seems fair.

The Cube returns, and Scharafali finally engineers an escape through a window in a charmingly executed moment, as if floating through the air, her legs the last to leave the room.

Henriksen, romantically lit like the sun god Apollo, ends both pieces standing alone, the second time in a tight ballet fifth position, chest arched to the ceiling, arms stretching classically to the sky before folding in on themselves. One of several poignant moments of the evening. Perhaps the loveliest and most striking impression was made by the lone dancer who, toward the end of Schmetterling, slowly peeled back the cyclorama on which was projected a majestic vista of Death Valley to reveal – nothingness.

As we filed out of the auditorium, I overheard several audience members compare the work to that of Pina Bausch. I have a feeling that she would have delighted in these pieces.

The impending three-year moratorium on works by former artistic director Jirí Kylián is cause for heartache among NDT fans – as unthinkable as if New York City Ballet announced a time-out from Balanchine and Robbins. (Perhaps an even greater loss, since Kylián is very much alive and making new work.) This decision is apparently intended to push NDT into a new era, and accelerate the development of new choreographic voices. We remain hopeful that this company of brilliant dancers will be gifted with work more worthy of their talents than what we saw last night at Cal Performances in Berkeley.