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An out-of-body body language

Times Staff Writer

Short of seeing the actual delivery of a baby, few things capture the miracle of birth as does the sensational ending of French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s new ballet, “Near Life Experience.”

Dancer Sebastien Durand rolls onto the floor from behind a large, blood-red ball of yarn, still covered in placenta-like material. He struggles to get up, slips a few times, but eventually rises to full height, thrusting his arms wide.

With nothing left to say beyond this moment of triumph, the work ends suddenly and dramatically. There is a sharp noise like a pistol shot and an instant blackout.

Seeing this, the audience Saturday at Royce Hall just about went crazy with applause.

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Preljocaj’s work, premiered last year at the Palafenice, the vast tented theater outside Venice, Italy, was receiving its first West Coast performances over the weekend as part of the UCLA Live series.

Preljocaj had been inspired by his own out-of-body experience induced by oxygen deprivation while on a 9,000-foot-plus hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He resolved to create a work exploring such states of heightened consciousness, whether induced by drugs, orgasmic climax, religious ecstasy or near-death experiences (hence the play on words of the title).

As a choreographer, he thus set himself the difficult task of using dancers’ bodies to convey unseen, internal states of being. The Renaissance sculptor Bernini could represent the visionary ecstasy of St. Theresa by showing an angel about to pierce her heart with an arrow of love. But what if you don’t want to show the angel?

With Preljocaj, you get a sequence of dancers grimacing in pain, jaws distended in silent screams, eyes opened wide, bodies stretched and flexed to extremes.

But you also get hands clasping in prayer, heavenly smiles, bodies melting in moments of transcendence.

The 80-minute piece consisted of a series of such sequences. It had no narrative, although some sections suggested one -- think short stories more than a novel. There may have been, however, a purposeful progression not evident on a first viewing of such a complex, episodic piece.

One story suggested a near-death experience of a woman, bewildered and in agony in finding herself somewhere she could not comprehend. Suddenly, one figure after another emerged from the sides to embrace, comfort and calm her. Their movements were slow and weightless, as was much of the choreography.

But other sections were more abstract, beautiful in design and transporting in mood. The score by the French pop-music duo Air contributed to the moods through gentle guitar arpeggios, accelerating, pulsating beats, or sheer industrial noise. Patrick Riou lighted the dancers lovingly. Gilles Rosier designed the attractive, clinging and revealing costumes.

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Not all sections worked equally well. In one, Claudia de Smet and Yang Wang wore plastic wine glasses appended to every joint and also affixed to their backbones. One British interviewer suggested the glasses meant to represent the dancers’ auras. But they looked cheap and weird. Perhaps the choreographer meant to suggest the shallowness of ego loss through alcohol intoxication.

With “Near Life Experience,” Preljocaj has abandoned, at least temporarily, his brutal, aggressive realism depicted in his fascist-state “Romeo and Juliet” seen in Los Angeles in September 1998 or in several works on a mixed bill danced in Irvine a month later.

The sequence in which de Smet was unable to escape from a trio of men, for instance, despite her soft cries of protest, did not seem menacing, as it would have in those earlier works.

Similarly, the cat’s-cradle-like constructions made by three women grasping ends of long strands of red yarn in their teeth, with men holding the other ends, did not seem manipulative, as an earlier Preljocaj would have intended.

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That final birth emerged from a sequence in which two lovers, Celine Galli and Alexandre Nipau, seemed to be united in the womb, placed in an embrace there by the others. At first, the two were mere drooping, life-sized puppets. But then they came to life. The point seemed to be that there were greater, beneficent forces at work here. All the universe participates in creation.

This was a new Preljocaj indeed.


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