Sutra carries a hefty burden of expectation. Over the last 10 years, this production has toured to 33 countries and been seen by over 160,000 people. As part of a worldwide tour to mark its tenth anniversary Sutra returns to Sadlers Wells, the theatre that nurtured its creation.

© Andree Lanthier
© Andree Lanthier

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui brings together 20 monks from a Shaolin Temple in China with dancer Ali Thabet. Sutra - meaning thread - offers a window into the world of Zen Buddhism and kung fu. Monks enter the temple and commit to lifelong training of the mind and body through mediation and martial art. Their religious purpose is to express unity between heaven and earth.

The hour long work brims with humour and is laced with ego. Thabet's curiosity is met with indifference early on, sometimes challenge and later a gruff acceptance. He works hard to win their respect. Thabet dances a micro duet with a boy monk. His companion is pint-sized and wins the affection of the audience in an instance. They squeeze into a tiny space, mirroring each other's body shapes. There's intimacy and strangeness here, a common language but a different cultural intonation.

Cherkaoui resists the temptation for "fusion", and he doesn't showcase. The latter would patronise, and the former would appropriate. The warrior monks are not trying to be dancers in a way that a western audience would recognise. Rather, Cherkaoui plants kung fu into a contemporary dance ecology. He allows it to flourish but in a different kind of soil. We recognise the fighting stanzas; punches that snap across the body and kicks that explode like bullets. They spring into the air like harrier jump jets and tumble with a feline elasticity. When seeing something unfamiliar, drawing comparisons to what one already knows anchors the experience. I'm captivated by the elegance and athleticism of the monks. Grace in a European style of dance disguises strength. In kung fu grace and dexterity seem to serve as an unashamed expression of power; power under perfect control. 

21 human sized boxes designed by British sculptor Anthony Gromley morph the space into a kaleidoscope of shifting images - a ragged mountain range, a rabbit warren, a crumbling cliff top, and a lotus flower. The five-sided boxes become part of the choreography, an extension of the human body. Kung fu focuses on harnessing the power of movement within the natural confines of the human anatomy, unlike classical ballet which trains the dancers to continuously push beyond the edges of their physicality. Gromley's set allows for playful experimentation. The monks leap like crickets onto perpendicular pillars and glue themselves to the inside casing like limpets. For the keen eyed, a miniature collections of boxes is tucked down stage right, detailed in a tiny square of light. Perfectly formed to fit into a child's nimble fingers, the oblong impressions foretell the next structural formation into which the performers move their full sized counterparts.

Sutra holds a special place in Sadler's Wells history. In 2008, it was the theatre's first international production. In a fast paced world, Cherkaoui's artistic endeavour still resonates. Will we still feel its relevance in another decade? It would be foolish to hazard a guess, but I hope its spirit of cross-cultural curiosity inspires a future generation.

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