Silvia Azzoni as the Little Mermaid, Carsten Jung as the Prince. (Kiran West )

Most of the sailors are shirtless in choreographer John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid,” and their prince has no pants. In a story about the terrible price paid for a pair of human legs, his provide extraordinary inspiration.

Truth be told, I might wager quite a lot on the chance to strut around for just a while like Hamburg Ballet’s Carsten Jung, who played the prince in Neumeier’s beautifully rendered but overdone dance-drama that opened a six-day run Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. 

The splendid German company was last here in 2004 with “Nijinsky,” also by the Milwaukee-born Neumeier, the troupe’s longtime director. As with that bio-ballet on the famous Russian dancer’s descent into madness, “The Little Mermaid” is dark, hallucinatory in feel and character-driven. 

Do not expect the upbeat Disney version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, nor a typical ballet treatment with virtuoso dancing. “The Little Mermaid” is a meditation on awkwardness and the outsider experience. Lera Auerbach’s careening music is nervous and lovely all at once, but it is also unsparingly sad. 

You’ll need to read the program notes carefully to follow what’s happening. Knowing Andersen’s tale is not enough, as Neumeier takes liberties with it. There’s nothing like dance for evoking with immediacy and poetry what happens to the body in various states of being: in love, in despair — even in water. The liquid, swimming feel of the undersea scenes and the many rich theatrical effects are the chief pleasures of this ballet. But narrative clarity is not its strength. 

Hamburg Ballet presents John Neumeier's “The Little Mermaid,” with Ivan Urban as the Poet and Silvia Azzoni as the Little Mermaid. Lloyd Riggins also portrays the Poet in some of the Kennedy Center productions. (Kiran West)

There is great promise in the opening scenes, in which we see the title character luxuriating in her watery world, then rescuing and falling in love with the prince when he dives under the waves after a golf ball (he’s a pretty-but-dim variety of royal). But the ballet proceeds in fits and starts. The first act is long. The second is shorter, but feels longer. The ending makes more sense if you’ve read not only the program but also Andersen’s text, which spells out the spiritual element.

Still, I was deeply moved by this production, and if you have adventurous tastes, there is a great deal to enjoy. The story of a mermaid’s doomed quest for human love swings from the deep sea to a ship, from a beach to a ballroom, and finally into the heavens. Neumeier is credited with the set, costume and lighting designs as well as the choreography. But it’s the sensual quality of movement he’s drawn from his dancers, more than their steps and the gorgeous scenography, that catches the eye first. 

The ballet opens with a man standing alone on the deck of a ship. He’s identified as the poet, and the story unspools as an entwining of Andersen’s life with his famous fairy tale. Beloved by young readers around the world, the prolific Danish author was nonetheless alone in life. Perhaps this fueled his intense sympathy for loners, oddballs and outcasts. Neumeier envisions his poet — a stand-in for Andersen — as suffering for the man he cannot have, just as the little mermaid will later suffer for her elusive prince. 

As the poet, Lloyd Riggins conveys deep sensitivity in the carriage of his body, the way he lists and sways as others walk by, unnoticing. Some of the ballet’s most wrenching moments involve Riggins and Silvia Azzoni’s mermaid, as together they learn it takes more than legs to survive on land. It takes a whole range of social behaviors, not all of them pretty. Neumeier’s triumph is in putting us all in the outsider’s place, to watch how easily innocence can be crushed. All it takes is indifference. 

The Little Mermaid by Hamburg Ballet. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday. 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.