In Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra, 19 Shaolin monks from an ancient temple near Dengfeng, China, perform hair-raising feats of martial prowess honed over a lifetime of devotion to daily practice of kung fu and tai chi. With gravity-defying kicks and leaps and flips, blindingly fast weapon twirling, and explosive, powerful lunges and thrusts, the monks bring a sense of visceral discipline to the stage.
And Cherkaoui plays with that energy, balancing the power with humour. To the side of the stage is the lone Westerner, assistant choreographer Ali Thabet, who plays the role of clown-creator, at first seeming to orchestrate the movements of the monks, but quickly realizing that they are a force of nature that he can’t control. Nor can he partake of their communal existence, their strength, or their movement. Thabet is aided, however, by a friendly, tiny ambassador, a monk-in-training, an 8-year-old child who both humours and helps the hapless European, so out of his element when faced with the pristine force of the dancing monks.
The entire choreography takes place in, under, around, on top of, and among 21 wooden boxes, designed by British sculptor Antony Gormley. The boxes are an integral part of the choreography: the monks lie in or under them, move them to an upright position and climb on top of them, turn them into temple doorways through which the audience glimpses the monks’ martial training. At one point the child pushes them over like dominoes, a dancer standing upright in each box, toppling and crashing one onto the other.
Thabet has his own box, seemingly made of metal. Where the monks effortlessly use the boxes as a means to augment their strength and sense of connectedness, Thabet’s heavy box limits and isolates him. There is a beautiful moment when he inhabits his box like a body in an upright coffin, using its inner walls to manoeuvre in and out of fetal-like positions. After a few moments, he is joined by the little boy, and together they explore the tight space and in doing so connect warmly with each other. At other moments Thabet, obviously wanting to join the group of monks, is held back by his box, one leg stuck within while the other makes a Chaplinesque effort to drag the whole kit-and-caboodle forward toward the group. Is it a comment on the pitfalls of Western materialistic individuality versus the interconnectedness of Eastern spirituality? Maybe, but if so, it’s presented lightly and with endearing humour. And lacking in any kind of profundity.
My only criticism of Sutra is that although it is visually stunning and creatively interesting, and the Shaolin monks impress with their physical prowess, the work lacks depth. It’s like a circus trick, using a centuries-old spiritual discipline to draw oohs and aahhs and chuckles from the audience, but it lacks any kind of spiritual or emotional nourishment or meaning beyond hackneyed intimations of West vs East. It’s delightful, it’s impressive, it’s muscular and lean and fun, but it doesn’t speak with any wisdom.
Sadler’s Wells Sutra plays at Théâtre Maisonneuve May 3, 4, 5, 8, 9 at 8pm. Tickets here.