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A cross-cultural masterpiece

Reviewed: Sutra.

New Statesman
Chinese shaolin monks perform in 'Sutra', choreographed by Belgian dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Photo: Anne-Christne Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

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.