Brighton Festival 2013
Chinese Shaolin monks perform heartstopping dance theatre featuring Kung Fu moves and traditional stick fighting routines in a set designed by Anthony Gormley
A sutra is a short text or ‘aphorism’ just a few lines long in Hinduism or Buddhism. The sutras were written down in books of palm leaves sewn together with thread. Literally the word means a thread or line that holds things together as in ‘to sew’, as does the medical term "suture."
Created in 2008, Sutra is one of the biggest hits produced by Sadler’s Wells. This wonderful show performed by the monks of the Shaolin temple in China follows the path of many separate sutras stitched together and was choreographed by Sid Larbi Cherkaoui.
The show began by showing us a quiet and studious scene between a young monk and a bearded anonymous westerner (played by Ali Thabet, one of the co-choreographers of the piece). The Westerner is moving 18 small wooden blocks around on a table, which are a model of the large blocks that are onstage, being moved around by monks. We quickly see that whatever the Westerner does with the model is echoed with the blocks onstage, and we wonder if he a god, an architect or a father, until a monk breaks rank and overturns the table and the arrangement of small blocks.
The monks (who see themselves as a conduit for univeral energy and transformation), dressed in flowing grey traditional outfits and with shaven heads, perform a series of short vignettes encompassing magnificent and accomplished kung –fu style martial arts moves, shadow boxing and tai-chi, balanced around and within artist Anthony Gormley’s set of 18 large coffin-sized wooden crates which metamorphose into boats, steps, the sea, and numerous other platforms for the monk’s physical displays of warrior technique. The monks set up patterns of movement with the boxes and use them to aid their gravity-defying leaps and kicks.
There are moments of moments of humour mixed with drama as boxes crash to the floor, and monks leap across the stage defying gravity merging martial arts, physical theatre, mime and operatic fight sequences. The young monk continues his relationship with the Westerner, perhaps trying to guide him through the culture of the monks, illustrated by the blocks becoming lotus petals as he meditates in the traditional cross-legged pose.
As we move through the different threads, the monks become more westernised – first donning T-shirts, then tailored suits and shirts as the blocks take on the appearance of a Western city of skyscrapers. The Westerner is awkward and bumbling compared to the fierce elegance of the monks, and occasionally they knock him off his block, firm but fair. The traditional ritualistic element is clear in the monk’s performance, as is the personal spiritual strength needed to maintain the level of required physical discipline.
Throughout the piece, musicians played Szymon Brzóska’s sparse, atmospheric score, with layers of strings and percussion. Sadly though the musicians were hidden and much of the audience was unaware that the music was in fact live.
For those searching of a narrative, perhaps there was none, and it may be that there is a Buddhist message to let go of our Western notions of narrative and be in the moment, enjoying it right now, not trying to make any sense of it.