Enter the dragon

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and sculptor Antony Gormley were drawn to the legendary Shaolin m

For more than 1,500 years, Shaolin has been a byword for fantasy, myth and legend. In storybooks, it is a place where sparring monks leap across bamboo landscapes and fight dragons on tiled rooftops. In Buddhist scriptures, it is the spot where an Indian or Persian monk called Bodhidharma sat for nine years staring at a cave wall before inventing Zen Buddhism. To successive emperors and government officials, it has been held up alternatively as the pinnacle of wisdom and the seat of subversion. In films, it is where kung fu legends develop superhuman strength and spend years in muted subservience to hundred-year-old masters.

The reality today is a little different. The temple is wedged at the foot of the Song mountain range in the middle of what is now the industrial Henan Province, and the only kinds of clouds in which it is likely to be shrouded are those of coal dust from nearby mines. One of China's top tourist destinations, the entire valley has been turned into a kind of Shaolin theme park, complete with golf buggies to chug visitors to and from the temple gates. Swarms of martial-arts training schools have sprung up nearby, feeding off Shaolin's reputation for churning out Chinese bodyguards and film-star hopefuls. Students train from as young as three and the conditions are notoriously tough. Many board full-time, seeing their parents once a year or even less often. Ex-students whisper of fierce teaching methods, including regular beatings and bullying.

Of the 200 monks in residence, the majority are teenage boys, sent by their parents to bolster their chances of getting a government job - many come from families with good connections. Years of rigorous training have given them the bodies of warrior ballerinas and as they loiter in the shadow of the monastery compound playing with their mobile phones, they compare kicks, flips and somersaults like pro-skaters demonstrating a latest trick.

It is to this world of 21st-century Shaolin China that the Flemish-Moroccan dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has bravely turned for his latest production, Sutra, which premieres at Sadler's Wells in London this month. Using 17 of the temple monks as performers, Cherkaoui has set their violent, disciplined, spiritual and gravity-defying martial arts to music by the young Polish composer Szymon Brzóska and placed them in a stark, modern set designed by the British sculptor Antony Gormley.

Taking a break from rehearsals in one of the monastery's basic studios where the monks train, Cherkaoui explains that the idea of the show is to return to Shaolin's roots. "From the very beginning our only ambition has been to create an environment for them to show their art. I like their rituals not out of exoticism, but because of what they teach us. In Europe, we spend so much time training our minds that we let our bodies go to pieces."

The kung fu the monks are taught is closer to gymnastics than to a combat sport, with showy jumps and multiple backflips rather than deadly chops to the head. For the production, Cherkaoui is determined to draw on what the monks already know - he insists he's not here to teach them how to dance - but replace the kitsch costumes and Chinese escalator music used in most modern Shaolin shows with something more tasteful. Gormley has designed a set consisting of 21 coffin-sized boxes, which are used like Lego bricks by the warriors, who push, drag, carry and roll them like toy soldiers acting out a story. "I like the idea that everyone is a brick in a larger architecture - the individual and the collective," says Gormley, who previously worked with Cherkaoui on his 2005 show Zero Degrees. "Each box is a womb, a tomb, a house, a life. We all exist with a body and a name but we also have a place that even when we're not in it, is waiting for us."

Both Cherkaoui and Gormley say that the piece has been inspired by Buddhism, especially the idea of nature and the human form. In fact, the Shaolin monastery's fame as a martial arts institution has long overtaken its religious purpose. The monastery's present-day theme-park incarnation appears to have come as something of a surprise to the Sutra team. Amused rather than dispirited by the hordes of gaudy tourists and the glossy temple gift bags (decorated with a picture of Vladimir Putin greeting the temple abbot), they have, during several visits over the past year, made a gallant stab at drawing what mysticism they can from the monks' daily lives. They sit in on early-morning prayers, share vegetarian lunches with the monks in silence and join long meditation sessions, staged with a flourish by the cloaked elders.

These sessions are important to glean inspiration for the performance, but also for the more prosaic task of keeping monastery officials onside. The process of artistic creation in China in the run-up to the Olympics is fraught with pol itical tension, particularly following the torch fiasco. The show's producers are at pains to play down any political connotations the collaboration might attract both in China and at home. At an evening meal with the abbot, they listen politely as he gushes about the temple's lucky powers, but it is hard to shake off the nervousness on both sides, lurking beneath the encouraging nods and smiles. Later, a worried press officer calls the New Statesman to check that any coverage of the rehearsals won't upset monastery staff.

The tension is in part understandable. Western artists have a bad reputation in Beijing, especially since the likes of Björk and Steven Spielberg made their thoughts on the Olympics clear. Licences for public performances have been restricted in the run-up to the games and at the end of last month Beijing's annual indie-music Midi festival was cancelled because foreign bands were scheduled to play. "Performance schedules in Beijing are in a mess at the moment. Even the National Ballet doesn't know what's going on," says Sutra's main producer, Hisashi Itoh, who has decided to postpone the show's Beijing dates until the Olympics are well out of the way.

Such politically motivated wrangling is a great shame, as it is clear, watching rehearsals, that a collaboration on this scale can only be a force for good. The disarmingly calm Cherkaoui sits at a small table in the middle of the room flanked by an entourage of helpers. Onstage the monks run through choreographed scenes with impressive precision. They seem to be the ones having the most fun, their backstage banter provoking repeated calls for quiet from Cherkaoui's translator. When the team breaks for lunch they crowd round the choreographer and beg him to show them his hip-hop dance moves.

"[The monks] are really enjoying being part of the creative process," says Damien Jalet, one of the dancers assisting on the project. "I think they are used to learning everything from a very disciplined, top-down system, so the chance to come up with their own ideas is something they're not used to." At one point he performs a sequence from Myth, Cherkaoui's latest production. The monks watch in amused silence as he arches across the mats to the sounds of medieval court music. But 25 minutes and five run-throughs later, all 17 members of the cast are copying Jalet, and keeping up. Cowering in the middle of it all is 11-year-old Dong Dong, mascot monk, who was tacked on to the cast as an afterthought but has increasingly taken centre stage. He has become a kind of silent narrator, directing the audience from one idea to the next.

"He is a very gifted kid," says Cherkaoui, who has clearly developed an affection for him and laughs out loud at Dong Dong's enthusiastic take on the acting notes he's given. "He has become the child through which I can talk about wisdom and life itself. The kid is the enlightened one because he is free of judgement."

If all goes to plan, Cherkaoui himself will appear onstage to act out a sequence with Dong Dong. The scene is only half choreographed, but watching him cradle, drag and pull the boy's limp little body has the entire room standing in silence. In this moving scene, for a moment, all tensions fall away and the audience sees the true possibilities opened up by artistic collaboration between China and the west.

"Sutra" is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, from 27-31 May. For more details visit: http://www.sadlerswells.com

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything