Celebrating its tenth anniversary, one of Sadler’s Wells’ most successful productions, Sutra, arrived at Oxford’s New Theatre for two nights – one of two UK locations on its current international tour.
This is a collaboration between Belgian choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and sculptor Antony Gormley, whose 21 arresting wooden boxes dominate the stage. The stars of the show are certainly the 19 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China.
The 60-minute piece unfolds like a conversation between Ali Thabet’s narrator (that’s how I interpreted it anyway) and the Shaolin Kung Fu monks across a series of stanzas, with the youngest monk, aged about eight, acting as the punctuation. The specially composed score by Szymon Brzóska lends the emotion, power and dictates the piece.
To begin Thabet and young monk crouch over a miniature version of the stage – 21 building blocks between them – almost godlike. The monks lying in the wooden crates slam their sides almost in rebellion – the young monk scampers off to join his fellow monks.
The cast form an array of extraordinary images, the boxes are both the springboard for impressive acrobatics and a burden to be moved. At one point they stacked like dominoes, each holding a monk, and knocked, crashing with an enormous thud (which caused me to shout in alarm.)
Next, they open out like a lotus blossom, the youngest monk sat high above the others; in the next frame, each block acts as a wall shunning Thabet and only opening out for one of their own, the young monk.
Sutra has a number of meanings. It’s derived from a Pali word, ‘sutta, which is the collective term for the sermons of Buddha. In Hindi, sutras lay down the guidelines for proper conduct in life and in Sanskrit, it means string, thread or measure of straightness. As Sanjoy Roy from the Guardian noted in his review in 2010, ‘the lesson of this powerful and poetic piece is that thread, ultimately, is you.’ Perhaps life is what we make it…
The monks performing in Sutra are from the original Shaolin Temple, situated near Dengfeng City in the Henan Province of China and established in 495AD by monks originating from India. In 1983, the State Council defined the Shaolin Temple as the key national Buddhist Temple. The monks follow a strict Buddhist doctrine, with kung fu and tai chi martial arts forming an integral part of their daily practice.
There are many martial arts schools that have also been set up in the region under the name of Shaolin, from which performers for many of the more commercial Shaolin Monk shows are drawn. The performers in Sutra, however, are all Buddhist Monks from the original temple itself.
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