The beautiful contradiction of the Shaolin warrior monks – their unique intertwining of the spiritual and the physical – forms the heart of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s extraordinary production, Sutra, returning to Sadler’s Wells as part of a European tour.
Rather than simply being a straightforward showcase for the monks’ extraordinary kung fu skills, this is an often contemplative piece punctuated by passages of quiet. This has the effect of making the sudden bursts of agility and movement all the more dazzling. There are the requisite backflips and soaring jump-kicks, moments when gravity seems to have loosened its hold, but there are also more peaceful, meditative episodes - an apt balance.
The production begins with a lone dancer, originally performed by Cherkakaoui, now by Ali Ben Lofti Thabet, sitting at the side of the stage with a boy monk. They are a playing with a series of tiny wooden boxes, one for each of the man-sized pine boxes that lay at the centre of the stage. As the first adult monk appears on stage, swirling a sword around his head, Thabet replicates his movements with his fingers, giving the impression of controlling his actions.
These wooden boxes are the creation of artist Antony Gormley and they give the show its shape and spine. They are basic and functional things yet also highly versatile. They are stacked like shelves, worn like turtle-shells, made to form the petals of a flower and, in one precarious and truly gasp-inducing moment, they are set tumbling into one another like dominoes. Sometimes the boxes resemble coffins, sometimes they become prisons in which the monks lay writhing and kicking, and sometimes they form a wall, keeping the lone questing Westerner on the outside. Thabet has his own box, which is painted silver, marking out his other-ness. At times he seems to be their puppeteer but more often than not he just stands by and watches and it is only at the very end that he gets to join in, performing as one of them.
The monks initially wear traditional robes in shades of silver grey that match the surrounding walls before changing into black, western-style suits and then, later, changing back into their original outfits. In their cool suits they give off a different kind of vibe; their fluidity of movement is the same but something is both added and subtracted, making you think of the Western take on kung fu as filtered through numerous movies of varying quality.
As useful a tool as the boxes are – with their connotations of enclosure, of the mind and of the soul – they are also sometimes limiting, in the sense that they impose a need to create yet more ways of employing them; the moments when the monks dance in formation in front of the boxes are some of the show’s strongest.
The piece is performed to music by the composer Szymon Brzóska – played live by musicians seated behind the opaque back wall – which verges from the delicate to the aggressively percussive. The 65 minute piece is driven by a desire to explore and understand; rather than a collage of noise and force and visual spectacle at which the audience is invited to gawp, an attempt is made to bridge a cultural chasm, to connect.
Reviewed for musicOMH