Blissed out!

How do you represent ecstasy? It's a question that has been vexing artists for centuries. Can a new dance work provide the answer, asks Jenny Gilbert. And what have French pop duo Air got to do with it?
Click to follow

It was 6,000 metres up Mount Kilimanjaro, struggling for oxygen, that Angelin Preljocaj, France's most fashionable dance choreographer, had his out-of-body experience. "You feel muzzy, you feel lost, you can only move painfully slowly, and the effort of each step makes you feel 110 years old.

It was 6,000 metres up Mount Kilimanjaro, struggling for oxygen, that Angelin Preljocaj, France's most fashionable dance choreographer, had his out-of-body experience. "You feel muzzy, you feel lost, you can only move painfully slowly, and the effort of each step makes you feel 110 years old.

"Your brain is telling you to stop, give up, sink to your knees, go back, but your ruling instinct is telling you to go on climbing higher, higher. This is the mystery." The experience, he says, forced him to think about "prevailing notions of vitality, and what it takes to access extraordinary states of being - moments that hover over the very outer limits of consciousness, when it seems as if the soul has momentarily left the body." Preljocaj's latest show, Near Life Experience, is the result of such investigations and constitutes an attempt to capture the essence of trance, ravishment, rapture and ecstasy for the first time on a theatre stage.

Thanks to party drugs, the perfume industry and spam email, the word ecstasy is grossly over-used in our culture and corrupted by commercial notions of hedonism. But the original Greek "extasis" was clear to the point of ascetic: it meant "standing outside oneself", the self displaced. Ecstasy is something that happens beyond the body, beyond mere heightened sensuality or gratification. And it's this transcendent sense that generations of artists have tried to define or engender using the suggestive power of words, colour and sound. The more elliptical the form, the more successful the attempt has been. Poetry, with its free association, has naturally been streets ahead of prose. The English Romantics used opium to help the process along, and it was Keats, in Ode to a Nightingale, who probably came closest with his "fade far away, dissolve and quite forget", merging the perceived ecstasy of the bird's song with the bodily release the poet feels in hearing it, release so profound that "now, more than ever, seems it rich to die".

But how does a choreographer go about creating the impression of out-of-body experience using dancers who are very obviously "in the body"? Classical ballet has traditionally used elevation in the form of lifts and leaps to suggest heightened experience, and floating effects made possible by the pointe shoe. Romantic ballet of the 1840s was the first to cut dancers loose from their mortal coils, with ballerinas all over Europe imitating sylphs and ghosts, denying the solidity of their flesh by hovering on the tips of their toes; Giselle is probably the best known of those ballets today.

Ballet history is one thing, but Preljocaj has for the past 20 years been working in contemporary dance - barefoot, grounded, and necessarily more prosaic? Preljocaj thought not. He studied anatomical drawings of people in states of trance and hysteria. Jean Martin Charcot, a teacher of Sigmund Freud, published a series of such engravings in the 1880s. He read about the lives of Indian gurus, in particular Krishnamurti, who wrote with clarity about his own transcendental techniques. He pored over Catherine Clement's book La Philosophie du ravissement. And in the rehearsal studio he worked at bypassing the usual neurological connections dancers make when they move.

"It all hinges on the process of command," he says. "I can tell my arm to go up, or I can imagine my arm rising by itself. It's like the game schoolchildren play, when they press both hands very hard against their sides for 60 seconds. They stop pressing, and both arms float up unaided. I've tried to apply this thinking to 90 minutes-worth of movement so that the dancers appear to be moving sans volonté. Rather than trying to reproduce actual postures of trance and hysteria, we've tried to show what's going on inside."

The title, Near Life Experience, is of course an explicit reference to "near death experience", or NDE, the phenomenon reported by coma victims who have been declared clinically dead but subsequently come round, convinced of a sensation of having departed their own body. There is a close link, Preljocaj points out, between NDE and sensations of religious or sexual ecstasy. It's no mystery that orgasm has been referred to as "une petite mort", a little death.

To guide the spectator through the sprawling spectrum of possible reference, Preljocaj introduces coded props. The performers unravel lengths of blood-red wool, or umbilical thick white cord. They appear to float above glass domes, and in one highly risky ensemble, glass goblets are attached to the dancers' skin to suggest personal aura - the mysterious zone of light or energy described in some ancient philosophies. The show's lighting, too, references theories of synaesthesia - the belief, developed in the 19th century, that particular colours, musical keys, or even scents and flavours can cross-pollinate to induce a heightened sense of the other. The Paris fashion designer, Gilles Rosier, devised the deconstructed, flesh-coloured shirts the dancers wear - or almost don't wear: the effect is studiedly déshabillé.

"Near Life... is unlike anything I've done before," declares Preljocaj. "Until now, I've accepted that art should hold up a mirror to reality. Like many contemporary artists, my work has used more and more violent imagery. But wait, I thought, wouldn't it be liberating to contemplate its opposite for a while? I took a year out for reflection. I travelled, I took time, and I decided to make a dance piece not of this world, but on the margins of it. I set out to explore the realm of muted consciousness. I imagined floating in a sort of amniotic fluid which could filter out all the chaos of the world. This is my anti-violence protest, in a way." It's certainly a drastic turn-about for the dishevelled 47-year-old. This is the choreographer who re-imagined Romeo and Juliet (1990) in a vicious, futuristic police state. His Rite of Spring (2002) examined peer-group rivalry among modern youth and companion piece Helikopter etched blinding patterns to a crescendo of Stockhausen and military engine noise.

Preljocaj's sabbatical took him first to India and then to Tanzania (where he had his mountain-top epiphany). In the Hindus' holy city of Benares he spent whole days sitting by the Ganges, just watching. "Every morning at sunrise people come to the water to bathe, and it's beautiful to see," he says. "They believe something profound is happening to their bodies, that they are purified by the ritual, despite the filthiness of the water. The ecstasy on their faces is profound. I witnessed cremations too, and the ashes being cast into the flow. Again, the emotion went beyond ordinary human feeling. There was an element of trance that intrigued me." The first day back in the dance studio in Aix, Preljocaj was convinced that his dancers moved too fast. "Slow down, slow down," he told them, explaining that, while his previous pieces may have been about energy and attack, he now wanted the flip side, to think in terms of trance, the precise moment of orgasm, drug-induced states, vertigo and fainting (for which the French word, "évanouissement", sounds very much more alluring).

What he was seeking, he told his dancers, was a physical means for conveying perdition, a word more often used of a ship breaking up at sea. He suggested they try to move without engaging the brain, as if all connection had been severed.

The other key to the piece is the music. It is music, after all, that has led the field in the pursuit of rapture, and in one sense all music aspires to transport the listener up and away from the real world and the imprisoning self. From tribal chants to the floating church polyphony of Palestrina, from the turbo thrust of Wagner's Liebestod to the shimmering orchestral ecstasies of Debussy's L'apres-midi d'un faune (in turn inspired by a Mallarme poem), weaves a common thread - an engagement with ravishment, whether spiritual or profane. But when Preljocaj turned his thoughts to the music for his rapture-quest in dance, he went not to the art-house end of the spectrum but to pop.

Impressed by the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's film The Virgin Suicides, he approached the French rock duo Air, not because he felt their electro-acoustic atmospherics might provide a pleasant and unobtrusive wash of sound, but because he detected in the film the duo's willingness to collaborate, to adapt their material to another's. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel had never seen any contemporary dance. But that was easily dealt with - he simply invited them to one of his shows, and they were hooked. "Shocked, more like," says Godin, "to discover this extraordinary thing going on that we know nothing of. We felt everyone should know about it, which is partly why we said yes to the project."

There is little precedent for such a collaboration - unless you count Tchaikovsky exchanging polite correspondence with the Director of the Imperial Theatres over the outline plan of Sleeping Beauty, or Stravinsky mailing single pages of score to Balanchine in 1950s New York. But those were orchestral composers, readier to harness their art to formal structures. Air are purveyors of pop - ephemeral, improvisatory. And the kind of dance Preljocaj was proposing hardly falls into metrical phrases. As Godin confirms, "composing for film was comparatively easy because our music is like a soundtrack anyway. Composing for dance is highly specific. Frankly we hadn't a clue where to begin."

The main problem, he admits, was finding the words to discuss things. "Angelin would struggle to describe his vision of ecstasy for a particular section, and it would sound so convoluted and gloomy. We got the impression he wanted something aggressively abstract from us. In turn we found it impossible to articulate our ideas. There just isn't the vocabulary to do it. The breakthrough came when the two of us went into the studio to watch Angelin at work with the dancers. That's when we got it: what they were doing was so weightless, so beautiful, so inspiring, that we rushed upstairs to another room to lay down a section of music. And we went on working that way. Each day we'd send Angelin our latest improvisation on DAT and await his comments. It was slow, but it was the only way. It meant our response was felt, and spontaneous, and fresh." So fresh, in fact, that the last sections of music were created on the morning of the premiere.

Bringing Near Life Experience into being was a journey not without risk, Preljocaj admits, not unlike the risk people knowingly take when they explore illegal drugs. "To reach the furthest fringes of sensation you have to take the body to the point of total abandon. The whole point of the exercise is to lose yourself, but the danger is that you won't come back."

Ballet Preljocaj: Brighton Dome (01273 709709), 18 May; Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737), 20-22 May