A cross-cultural masterpiece

Reviewed: Sutra.

Twenty monks stand poised on top of twenty tall wooden boxes. In total unison, they sit, cross-legged and begin to gesture a story. Then in one, swift, controlled movement, they tilt the boxes forward and leap out of the way as each one comes crashing to the floor. Before you have time to take this in, they’re off again: leaping through the air, twisting, flipping and dragging the wooden sculptures to create another pattern.

Sutra is an amalgamation of art forms. A collaborative production between choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, artist Antony Gormley and composer Szymon Brzóska, it was first performed at Sadler’s Wells in 2008, and is hailed as one of the company’s biggest hits. Performed to audiences as far-flung as New Zealand and Singapore, the production has now returned to the UK for a national tour to mark its fifth anniversary.

Cherkaoui spent several months in the Shaolin Temple before devising the piece, in which the ancient art of kung-fu is explored within a contemporary context. Both choreographer and performer, he originally featured in Sutra playing the role of “western man”. For this performance, however, the role was played by one of Cherkaoui’s co-choreographers, Ali Thabet.

The underlying role of the “western man” character is to emphasise the monks’ physical strength and skill. While they manoeuvre Gormley’s wooden box sculptures with ease – creating giant rows of dominoes, huge stacks and towering structures –at one point Thabet is unable to move his at all. His comedic antics raise laughs from the audience, but they also hint at a broader theme – cross-cultural communication.

With no dialogue, physicality is hugely important, and Thabet’s animated performance is spectacular. He is variously curious, apprehensive and intrigued by the monks. Standing away from their symmetrical patterns, he looks in, encouraging us to absorb every detail of their breath-taking feats of athleticism. Gradually, he embeds himself into the action, emulating sequences of leaps and jumps, until finally both parties perform a powerful series of kung fu movements in total unison.

Every aspect of Sutra is meticulously well thought-out. Antony Gormley’s simplistic set, comprising of 21 wooden boxes, is as integral to the production as the monks themselves. They continually manoeuvre the sculptures into patterns throughout the performance, dividing focus between human and object. And while the monks evidently react to vocal rather than musical cues – someone is always shouting an order – the score is an integral part of the production, serving to create moments of pathos, power and tension where otherwise there would be none.

Sutra is both intriguing and arresting. A fusion of contemporary and traditional movements, it merges cultures and dance-styles to create a spectacular production more akin to an art installation than a dance performance. Open-ended and exploratory, it is a cross-boundary, cross-cultural masterpiece.

Sutra is touring the UK until May 2013. 

Chinese shaolin monks perform in 'Sutra', choreographed by Belgian dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Photo: Anne-Christne Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times