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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“Minoan pendant”: a new poem by Mark Granier

“Yes – I press my nose / to the pleasantly warm glass – / it’s a copy of one I saw / cased in the cool museum”

Yes – I press my nose
to the pleasantly warm glass –
it’s a copy of one I saw
cased in the cool museum –
gold beaten to honey, a grainy
oval dollop, flanked by two
slim symmetrical bees –

garland for a civilisation’s
rise and collapse, eye-dropped
five thousand years: a flash
of evening sun on a windscreen
or wing mirror – Heraklion’s
scooter-life buzzing and humming –

as I step in to browse, become
mesmerised by the warm
dark eyes of the woman
who gives her spiel and moves
softly and with such grace,
that, after leaving, I hesitate

a moment on the pavement
then re-enter with a question
I know not to ask, but ask
anyway, to hear her voice
soften even more as she smiles
and shakes her hair – no.

Mark Granier is an Irish poet and photographer. He is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Haunt (Salmon).

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink