Recording ecstasy

Zsuzsanna Soboslay

Dances of Ecstasy on location

Dances of Ecstasy on location

The film Dances of Ecstasy by writer/director Michelle Mahrer and producer/co-writer Nicole Ma represents modes of trance experience that take participants into relationship with larger dimensions (“borderless, mysterious, vast”). For Mahrer, the intention to represent a “commonality between peoples”—a place of “no division…no walls of ego, culture, religion, fear”—is ably matched by the film’s virtually seamless form. Like a tone-poem, it is to be tasted or half-dreamt, carrying the viewer on waves of movement, rhythm, visuals, and sound. Dance-parties staged in the foyers of each film launch in Melbourne, Sydney and Byron Bay were held to encourage a continuity of this seamlessness, a bodily processing of what was viewed in the film. “We wanted to illuminate [and presumably tease open] the spiritual vacuum and deep loss of community that exists in our modern lives,” Mahrer says.

Footage of skyscrapers and hurried, crowded streets imply contrast between the psychological and physical isolation in modern (Western) life, and the communal experience of dance/trance, ritual and healing as shown in footage from the Kalahari (the San), Nigeria (the Yoruba), Morocco (a Hadra women’s ritual), Brazil (Candomble initiates), the Kut in Korea, Sufi whirling in Turkey, a workshop run by healer/dancer Gabrielle Roth in New York, and a trance party (the Rainbow Serpent Festival) in southern Victoria. Commentaries from Western specialists such as Jean Houston and some of the healers themselves presumably call up our hunger for connection. And yet, for me, this at times astonishing film shows up significant and notable differences of ontologies not caught in those language grabs.

I respond on 2 main levels to this film: to its artistry—as a beatific artefact in itself—and to how it represents what it documents; the cultural beliefs and practices it shows. Clearly, the makers earned the deep trust of the communities they filmed. Episodes of trance and possession, of men and women, are captured in full, and sometimes violent force: from Sufic spiralling, to the passing of sharpened knives across a shaman’s tongue; from an inwardly-intensifying shaking to sweating, writhing, screaming, collapse. Rare forces explode through willing bodies almost thrust out of themselves by a supra-human power. And there is the lighter, more individually oriented pleasure of the Rave. And yet, while the experiences of ecstasy are all presumed trans-individual and extra-bodily, the shape of movement and experience of trance is quite clearly also shaped by the beliefs and permissions (the “walls” and “borders,” perhaps) within each distinct culture. It’s as if (the same) gods need to negotiate their passage differently, and to different purpose, according to the tribe.

I admire the filmic details, such as a sense of otherness created by using slow shutter speeds and fast film, which tends to blur the outline of dancing bodies as if they are ghosted, or accompanied by spirits beyond themselves. And yet, I am also troubled by the blurring of both fine and gross differences, most especially in effects which include the slowing down of footage to make one culture’s movement conform to the rhythmic pattern of music from another culture’s practices. Shamans’ voiceovers detail how a different rhythm calls on a different spirit. The filmic blurring does disservice to this understanding.

Most difficult is where rave music, with its insistent, quite controlled repetitive rhythms, overlays footage of shamans in different trances/possessions slowed to the Serpent Festival groove. Quite clearly, the dance of trance (social healing), where a shaman/healer endures often intensely painful possession, is so immensely different in experience, purpose, and intention, to the noticeably individuated, extending and recoiling, ego-expressive dances of the rave. Shamanic dance, by contrast, seems to spiral inward to an almost invisible core. The exhausted, absented ecstasy in the faces of the shamans and tribal peoples who collapse are quite distinct from the ravers’ smiles of (relatively) simple joy. Significant is the aspect of the shaman processing unquantifiable pain on the way to embodying a healing force then distributed (as wind, breath, smoke, “medicine”) to the rest of his/her tribe. These are such different healings.

That said, I wept when I viewed the film for a second time: not only being moved again by such intensities, but also from witnessing the exquisite companionship that the indigenous communities give to each other in their processes. Yoruba and Candomble participants, carried to safety and guarded to recovery in tents; the Haddarat women in trance, sawing violently, bodies held safe by their sisters in their writhing trance…I weep to see both the acceptance of this non-ordinary experience, and because of the multitude of arms ready to hold others in their collapse. In our culture, we are often lucky to get mere words of agony, illness, ecstasy in edgeways (and the last perhaps only in childbirth, or sex).

I am left wondering whether ecstasy is a place to build up towards (or try to make cohere into a film); and what difference it makes within a culture to know ecstasy is accessible through repeated ritual—a rhythm to come back to. The film actually makes several nice moments of building and falling, resisting singular climax; but perhaps, as an experience of an event in itself, it reminds me of, rather than heals, my unhappiness at the separations of ecstasy from our everyday—birth, death and pain from daily life; self from selflessness or communality—which may be our greatest pain of all.

I was unable to view the additional documentation on the DVD version of Dances of Ecstasy before publication. This review is a response to viewing the publicly screened film.

Dances of Ecstasy, director/writer Michelle Mahrer, producer/co-writer Nicole Ma, director of photography Paul Elliot, sound Paul Finlay, editor Sioux Currie; 58 minutes.

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 18

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003
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