Sutra is not a new dance piece, having debuted in London in 2008, but it seems brand new by virtue of its meditative minimalism that calibrates décor, costuming, lighting, music, and movement perfectly while tracing a mini odyssey into the mind (as it were) of Zen Buddhism. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (who even performed in it on its debut) has created over 50 fully-fledged choreographic pieces that have earned him numerous international awards. Sutra is his sterling collaboration with British artist Antony Gormley and kung-fu Shaolin monks. Sixty-minutes long, it has an abstract formalism that is open to interpretation because of its elliptical nature, but virtually everything about it is thrilling and not just in a common sense.
Sutra begins with a small boy (Xing Kaishuo) who observes a Western adult (Ali Thabet, co-choreographer and dancer) who traces patterns with his fingers and who has a wooden model of the boxes used in the piece. The adult’s gestures and the boy’s imitations of them mirror and expand what transpires apart from them—in the movements of the powerful Shaolin monks, all youths with fine physiques, balance, gymnastic verve, and versatile elasticity. The title of this dance derives from Sanskrit and means “threads.” The piece’s connections to Zen Buddhism show only filaments of links to that way of belief. However, they are absorbing and delightfully expressed in the scenography (a 3-sided grey box that uses 21 6-foot blonde wood boxes in various configurations), costumes that begin with grey and deepen to black, and lighting that is in pale shades and that uses black dramatically at important points. The boxes, designed by sculptor Gormely, create a mobile architectural space, as it were, continually changing planes, shapes, angles, surfaces. They serve as plinths, trapdoors, caves, tombs, river, wall, skyscrapers, coffins—once surprisingly as Stonehenge shapes, twice thrillingly as collapsing dominoes and as an unfolding lotus. But all this is merely an environment for the outer and inner movements of the piece for Sutra is always about being and becoming. When the boxes become coffins, they symbolize mortality. When they are building blocks, they represent creativity.
Shaolin kung-fu is well established and celebrated as martial arts spectacle, with its men wielding lances, swords, and staffs with eye-popping velocity and ease, and executing their repertoire of high leaps, rolls, backward flips, deep plies, scissored kicks, and backbends with speed and finesse, building canons of explosive movement. But Cherkaoui has managed (with the help of four musicians behind a background scrim who play Szymon Brzoska’s melancholy Polish music on percussion, violin, cello, and piano) to temper its innate force and tight practised shapes, turning the warriors on occasion into lyrical dancers of extraordinary balletic grace and balance, as well as, briefly, into hip hop virtuosos. This is achieved by And, even more thrillingly, he and Thabet have created a contrast of energy and movement with young male dancers who are not easily trained in Western dance styles. So, for instance, a warrior can leap high on a solitary pole, balancing with one leg on its slant in raw defiance of gravity. Or another can seem to pause in a towering leap before landing softly. There are even comic moments, where the boy imitates a mischievous monkey or walks into a wall. These moments can seem cheesy to some audiences but they do have a showbiz allure.
But what of the filaments of Buddhism? They are present from the
outset, with the adult’s being a cultural and spiritual outsider (an
autobiographical connection to Cherkaoui, who sought to be accepted by the
monks in Henan) who is questing to imitate the monks’ unity of mind and
body. He often struggles literally to be accepted, even though he offers
sturdy and consistent physical support to the boy while training himself to
execute the monks’ hazardous and demanding corporeal routines. At one point,
he walks around with one foot trapped in a box, as if he can go nowhere
significant; at another, he is bumped off a high wall by a group of monks as
if he was an unwanted alien. And the boy represents a Shaolin warrior and
temple guard in the making. Even his miming of a monkey and fish have
connections to Buddhism for the first creature represents folly, vanity, and
mischief (real vices we must learn to expunge), while the second represents
freedom, happiness, and fearlessness for it thrives in its natural domain.
Eventually, the boy becomes the young Buddha in prayer, seated at the center
of a large lotus, surrounded by respectful monks.
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