Together with the BalletBoyz’ newest production, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra is probably the most eagerly awaited tour of the season. Since its première in early 2008, the piece has travelled extensively, touching 60 cities in 28 different countries, and this is its fourth season at Sadler’s Wells. A poem written for seventeen Shaolin monks; one Westerner; and Antony Gormley’s minimalist stage design – with such premises, Cherkaoui’s creation could only be a spectacular show. And indeed it is. Cherkaoui manages to break down Eastern and Western perceptions of each other and proves that martial arts are poetry in motion.

Sutra © Hugo Glendinning
Sutra
© Hugo Glendinning

More than a poem, Sutra is a collection of aphorisms or short images. In the white box of the stage, life-size wooden boxes cover the performing space. In the left-hand corner a man (a Westerner) and a boy (a ten-year-old Shaolin monk) sit cross-legged on a silver block, playing with tiny bricks. As the wooden toys get displaced, so do the larger boxes, rolling around as if invisible, giant hands were moving them. Leaving the game to the side, the Westerner – Ali Thabet, in the role Cherkaoui originally took – jumps on the boxes to observe them more closely, holding a staff which seems to be balancing on an uneven surface. Finally, he plunges the staff into what turn out to be cubicles, fishing out a grown-up Shaolin monk in grey, typical attire.

From then onwards it is only action. Seventeen Shaolin monks display their knowledge of martial arts from sword and staff fighting to bare-handed techniques and impressive jump sequences that would intimidate even a professional gymnast, all in the ever-changing background of the blocks. Ali can only stare at the monks’ proficiency as they go through their daily routines. Waves of movement touch the shores of an invisible kingdom as they perform their sequences in canon. Guards on a wall, walking up and down armed with spears, protect the realm, which can only be reached by boat. Epic images of the birth of the Shaolin Temple in the Chinese Middle Age as the non-violent Buddhist monks were called to defend their fields in the Hehan Province virtually become incarnations of the angry deities of the Buddhist pantheon. The tradition continued, thanks to imperial approval and, jumping forwards a couple of centuries, the Westerner’s interest – as their mindful techniques became part of mindless action films.

Sutra is the tale of an observer that slowly gets involved in the object of his fascination: he ends up participating in the monks’ final sequence. He starts off as the architect of an imaginary world where bricks gets magically reorganised with his companion, sometimes a young monk, sometimes a monkey. Ali is the Westerner with slapstick coordination that we see disappear down an imaginary staircase in a silver box. The monk boy becomes the friend this clumsy character and his guide into the Shaolins’ world, helping him as he feel excluded by walls or by the solitude of a monk’s cell. The narrative is driven by the rearrangement of the blocks in different configurations: from a lotus to a cube, from a Stonehenge-like landscape to a diagonal of domino pieces lying on one side. One is never sure if this is Ali’s dream or reality.

The little monk can be the mythical monkey Sun Wukong, travelling on a silver cloud with a magical staff who ferries the monks across an imaginary river as they have to leave a cubic structure that is being dismantled – but he can also be the incarnation of the young Buddha sitting in prayer on a pillar surrounded by a circle of praying monks, whose contemplative stillness Ali disturbs, confused by his companion’s many transformations. As we see the monks rearranging the blocks to form bunk beds or cells, he enters Ali’s box producing a moving duet as they try to fit into the small space. So there are two imitations of Rodin’s The Thinker (1902), one of which is levitating at the top of the box. Still the fascination with the Other goes both ways, and so the monks take a night out in town wearing Western attire – shirt, smart jacket and trousers.

The monks’ soft yet strong movements are reflected in Sutra’s basic and clean aesthetic: a white empty space, wood blocks and the pale colours of the costumes, which accentuate the introspective, poetic dimension of their action. The piece dynamics go from stillness to action-laden sequences, accompanied by Szymon Brzoska’s beautiful, melodic composition. But the Shaolins’ movements follow another dynamic that cannot be captured by Western music. They override it, creating and interesting combination. As a Shaolin monk counting the beads while reciting his mantras, these are the contrasts in energy that Cherkaoui, Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells since 2008, channels – successfully depicting stillness in action and action in stillness.

*****