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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State