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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How the radio stations reacted to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature inspired a bewildering gamut of radio responses. At first, proof of his talent was abundantly forthcoming, Andy Kershaw yelling down the line for World at One from a motorway services on the M6 within ­moments of the announcement. (“I can’t understand why they didn’t give this to him 41 years ago!”)

However, a full six days after Talk Radio excitedly reported the event on its home page (“a pivotal part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s”), the online feature has yet to attract a single comment. That’s zero talk. For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat, though Heart FM firmly quoted the chair of the English faculty at Oxford (“The Tennyson of our time”), and pencil-suckingly dissected lyrics (“Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Up the road . . .”).

Is it poetry? Is it literature? You could tell it was doing everybody’s head in. But when, on Radio 4’s Front Row, Billy Bragg praised Dylan for “bringing a literary and poetic thread into pop music”, the argument sounded terribly old.

The whole battle about Dylan being as great a poet as Tennyson is a hangover from an ancient battle, from a time when it actually had to be pointed out that this pop-music stuff can be brilliant and clever. A time when boring people battled for respect and prestige for an obvious genius. Over on Radio 2, Mark Goodier cheerfully played “Tangled Up in Blue” (“Major, major prize for Bob today. If that isn’t a decent excuse to play a song, I don’t know what is”). But by Sunday, on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the gloves were off and guests were declaring that they couldn’t stand Dylan’s voice (cliché, pathetic).

By Monday Simon Armitage was saying that Dylan’s lyrics had no more sophistication than something composed by a child. Is it poetry? Is it literature? Well, it kind of is. But it kind of isn’t. And it doesn’t matter very much, except to the likes of Dylan – and only a long, long time ago. Now he hardly requires the approbation. The Nobel Committee has given the prize to the one writer in the world who doesn’t need it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood