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Near Life Experience


Ballet Preljocaj


Ma Shaoling






The Esplanade Theatre



Gentle Dirty Violence

In a telephone interview with Life! (Straits Times, 01/03/2005), Albanian-born Angelin Preljocaj, the founder of Ballet Preljocaj, a contemporary dance company renowned for its bold conceptual choreography and its dancers' sensitivity, explains that "most dance companies use very graceful portrayals and themes, which is too abstract. They need to portray the violence and 'dirty' things." In the Asian premiere of Near Life Experience, the 24-member strong company does just that, except that they create a universal language that manages to be non-violent and unsoiled even in its portrayal of violent and dirty things.

Nine figures are standing and two others are propped up on lifeguard chairs; the stage is bathed in an almost clinical white light; a female voice breathes sensually amid heavy techno beats. So starts Ballet Preljocaj's pantomime of a world in which attempts at narratives are eclipsed by cross-cutting emotions, and in which the self is in turn eclipsed, thereby creating "a new expression in the space left by the body" (programme notes). The title of the work refers to "near-death experience", the out-of-body state sometimes reported by those coming out of a coma. Preljocaj explains that we verge on this liminal state during moments of fainting, during a trance, and in the instant of ecstasy or orgasm.

Thus Near Life Experience is composed of untitled episodes that conjure the extreme rapture that arises from the emotions of love, jealousy, and confusion. At certain parts the dancers are atomic individuals, their limbs a random flurry, who then pause in slow allongés, each seemingly unaware of the others' presence. At other parts, dancers come together in duos or harmonious small groups with graceful inertia, and allow fishbowls to be balanced on their arms, torsos and palms as if the transparent glass were an intrinsic part of the human tableau.

In the end, a gunshot is heard, and an anonymous figure completely shrouded in cloth collapses on the stage with a thud. Death, as represented here, is just as confounding as all the choreography of life that precedes it; confounding, yet still very much necessary and worthwhile. If for Socrates, "an unexamined life is a life not worth living," then for Ballet Preljocaj, an unexamined death is not worth the fact of having lived.

Although Near Life Experience is rated R(A) for semi-nudity and contains scenes performed with fragile and absurd arrangements of props like fishbowls, wineglasses and red wool, it would be unjust to label Ballet Preljocaj's craft as mere sensationalism or fuel for controversy. Instead, the use of external things in conjunction with the human body distances the body from a mere state of instrumentality; as such, Near Life Experience makes us rethink the boundaries of the mind/body duality that has so occupied the history of contemporary dance. One memorable scene is of seated dancers tossing small balls of red wool to and fro, transforming the stage into a lattice of playful, child-like energy. Two dancers skip and jump niftily over these strewn balls with footwork fleet enough to make the darting red threads look slow. If as the choreographer explains, the "glass goblets and blood red wool represent bodily aspects or personal aura", then this scene is an attempt to transcend gravity and bondage.

Repetition plays a central role, both thematically and structurally, in Near Life Experience. Besides the repetition of motifs such as the red wool and the incorporation of other objects with the dancers' movements, Preljocaj's choreography also allows certain signature moves such as inversions and torso contortions to recur at certain points in the dance. Unfortunately however, one feels that there is something amiss in Near Life Experience precisely because of these repetitions. The music to the piece, composed by French duo Air sets a lush tone for the dancers' languid expressions, but at times its repetitiveness and the recurring movements that accompany it fail to strike a chord and instead bring the overall choreography to the verge of being tiresome.

"If for Socrates, 'an unexamined life is a life not worth living,' then for Ballet Preljocaj, an unexamined death is not worth the fact of having lived."

More Reviews by Ma Shaoling

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.