Nederlands Dans Theater's performance of Schmetterling, butterfly, at Cal Performances. Photo: Nederlands Dans Theater
Nederlands Dans Theater’s performance of Schmetterling, butterfly, at Cal Performances. Photo: Nederlands Dans Theater
Nederlands Dans Theater’s performance of Schmetterling, butterfly, at Cal Performances. Photo: Nederlands Dans Theater

If it’s possible for a dance performance to cause tears of joy and dismay, shed simultaneously, then Nederlands Dans Theater’s Oct. 23 appearance at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall did it.

Under the cyclonic force of former artistic director Jiri Kylian from 1975 to 1999, the Dutch company expanded to three entities (NDT I, II and III) and developed a breathtaking arsenal of more than 600 ballets choreographed by the likes of Hans Van Manen, Crystal Pite, Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek, William Forsythe and Kylian. Renowned for their exquisite, age- and curriculum-defying dancers (NDT II features young dancers; NDT III was a showcase for those over 40) the company swallowed classical ballet’s rigorous form and modern dance’s instinctive earthiness with equal command. The result — stunning performances that left audiences gulping and dance critics swooning — established an NDT performance as an opportunity to worship the infinite possibilities of the human form, bent into mesmerizing works by contemporary dance masters. 

In 2011, Paul Lightfoot stepped into the artistic director role, along with frequent choreographic collaborator and artistic advisor Sol León, after dancing with the company until 2008. On the Berkeley stage on Wednesday evening, one thing was clear: their tenure has not reduced the dancers’ supernova technique.

The evening’s two works were choreographed by Lightfoot and León. Sehnsucht (a German word which translates as nostalgic yearning or longing) and Schmetterling (meaning butterfly), centered on love and loss and the talents of a small cluster of the company’s 30 dancers.

The curtain rose on Silas Henriksen, crouched, his parted knees foreshadowing the night’s second work by resembling the wings of a butterfly. Unfolding to the strains of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, this is a dancer of remarkable range — even amid his hauntingly unforgettable NDT cadre. His silky transitions, brilliant precision, and elegant, endless line were contrasted by intentionally awkward perambulations and aloof poses that appeared to freeze, not just his body, but time itself. Each move announced the obvious: one can have it all from Henriksen alone.

The upstage box in Sehnsucht. Photo: Nederlands Dans Theater
The upstage box in Sehnsucht. Photo: Nederlands Dans Theater

But NDT promises more than a single shiny star. Suspended in an upstage box that rotated throughout the ballet, Medhi Walerski and Parvaneh Scharafali engaged in a frigid pas de deux. Walerski moved like a gangster, slicing the air with supreme leg extensions, riveting aerial attack and magnificent, weighty physicality. Scharafali, an understated, generic Barbie to Walerski’s Ken, managed to weave a tortured, textured performance out of the choreography’s thin thread.

The ballet’s second movement pounded home the classical notions of unison and line formations. The company, like an adept battalion, filled the stage with gorgeous, regimented arms and legs. A final section closed as the ballet began: more lush line from Henriksen, incendiary flair from Walerski and icy elegance courtesy of Scharafali. Although now, the box’s corners and openings became prisons and mortal vacuums, sucking the life from the trio.

A 25-minute intermission (during which Henriksen exited slow-mo, the soon-to-be-stellar Ema Yuasa crossed stage left to right and Walerski trailed, pausing to ask “What?” of the onlooking audience) kept most people in their seats, curious or fascinated.

Schmetterling held more treasures, especially the white-faced Yuasa, a dancer with depth. Whether appearing to age 50 years within the space of three steps or inspiring delight with cartoon-style gestures, she is a dancer capable of making the audience feel — if only for a fleeting moment of wild imaging — what she herself is feeling. And Jorge Nozal impressed with refined classicism applied to his role’s dark, violent physicality and lighthearted cowboy-inspired impersonations.

The night’s dismay came, therefore, not from the dancing, but from the dances. Despite gorgeous sound scores (Beethoven for the first work, indie pop band The Magnetic Fields and Max Richter’s instrumental insertions for the second), disappointments included choreography that seemed to grasp, as the night progressed, at greatness by auditory association. Why this Beethoven? Would this choreography be worthy without the clever word play? Often, the answer was negative.

Even the ingenious, rotating box (Sehnsucht ) and the Death Valley curtain (Schmetterling) became a theatrical ruse, losing their power in the midst of the works’ rickety structuring.

And stripping female dancers of their tops or engaging in countless double attitude split lifts or holding one bent leg aloft to the side while staring belligerently forward were simply tedious to watch. And worse, they took the dance nowhere. Gimmicks, even set on incomparable bodies, fail to move the art form forward.

Innovation and intelligence are what NDT has always represented: dances that shift the ground underneath audiences’ feet and great work that shakes expectations free from their moors. The dancers still rocketed into unpredictable orbits we’ll want to circle into eternity. With luck, their spaceship will be more worthy the next time they land in Berkeley.

Cal Performances’ 2013-14 season includes more dance, including performances by Shanghai Ballet this Friday and Saturday, and by the Martha Graham Dance Company in January and February. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.