Sutra brings dance of Shaolin monks to Scotland

The cast of Sutra. Picture: Contributed
The cast of Sutra. Picture: Contributed
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WHEN choreographer and leading man don’t speak the same tongue as their acrobat partners, you might predict a hot mess. But the Buddhist monks and Westerners behind Sutra share one common language – dance.

I’m sitting opposite two Buddhist monks from the Shaolin temple in China. They speak no English, I speak no Chinese. Happily, sandwiched between them in a backstage office at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, is an amiable translator.

Through him, Yan Xuan and Yan Ji tell me about their daily life in the temple (5am start, several hours of Buddhist study, martial arts training and meditation, followed by a 9pm bedtime) and how it differs from their current life in London (a trip to see Big Ben and Tower Bridge the previous day, and, even more exciting, they get to do their own cooking).

Then, at a time when they would ordinarily be getting ready for bed, the monks are taking a bow on stage in Sutra, a powerful and contemplative work by Belgian contemporary choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, due to arrive in Edinburgh next week.

Performed by 17 Shaolin monks, ranging in age from ten to 26, and Belgian dancer Ali Thabet, Sutra is about eastern and western cultures coming together – not one riding roughshod over the other. Prior to the show’s premiere in 2008, Cherkaoui and Thabet spent three months at the Shaolin temple, learning from the monks and shaping the work collectively.

“We liked the idea of old and new coming together,” says Yan Xuan, “of combining a contemporary art form with martial arts. So we agreed that Larbi could come and learn martial arts with us, and that we would exchange ideas and start creating.”

Thrown into that creative mix, right from the start, were the designs of acclaimed UK sculptor Antony Gormley – 17 boxes, not dissimilar to coffins, used in various dynamic configurations throughout the show. As the performers push and pull these wooden structures there is no margin for error – one false move and somebody’s going to get hurt.

So although the monks have spent years honing their martial arts technique, and by virtue of their daily lives are used to being part of a close-knit team, Sutra posed a hitherto unknown challenge.

“Our training helped us work as a team, but we still had to rehearse a great deal as it was very different with the boxes,” explains Yan Xuan. “But the more time we spent with them, the more of a connection we had – we each needed to become one with our box.”

Alongside Gormley’s big boxes are 17 model ones. Originally built for demonstration purposes to speed up the creative process, they were soon incorporated into the action by the youngest members of the team. The “little monks”, as they are referred to, started playing with them like Lego, and Cherkaoui decided to use the small model boxes in the show.

Five years on, one of those little monks is now 17, and still part of the Sutra ensemble. For him, the production has taken on a new meaning.

“It’s quite different now,” says Yan Ji. “When I was younger, I was just playing and didn’t really think about what I was doing. Now I take it more seriously. I want the performance to be perfect for me, and for the audience.”

Without the translator, none of this exchange would have been possible. But for Cherkaoui and Thabet, their relationship with the monks moved beyond words during their time in the temple. “At the beginning, the translator was very important so we could explain the idea and process, because it was so new for them,” explains Thabet. “But we were working with 18 monks, and you can’t have a translator there for all of them all of the time. So we began to turn the process into a game, and we found a kind of sign language. We are dancers, so we’re very sensitive to body language – and now I can have a full rehearsal with the monks without a translator. I don’t speak Chinese, but they definitely understand the point I’m trying to make.”

Thabet describes his time at the temple as a unique experience. Both he and Cherkaoui were big fans of kung-fu before they travelled to China, so imposing their western choreography on the monks was never on the agenda. “When we arrived at the temple, it was not to make them discover contemporary dance,” recalls Thabet. “It was for us to learn about the movements they have practised since they were six years old. The monks have such strong precision, and we wanted to see how we could fit into and use that precision, not change it to fit our ideas.”

Using the boxes was a learning curve for all concerned, but the effect on stage is well worth the effort. Gormley’s design is layered with metaphor, about the monks’ lives and our own. “The boxes signify many things,” says Thabet. “It could be a coffin, but also the personal space that surrounds us, our own individuality.

“And if you come too close into that space, you start to share something physically. The monks do everything together, but they also have an individual, very spiritual life in the middle of their group life, so the boxes represent that.”

Unlike the monks, Thabet has a metal box, indicating the similarities and differences between the performers. Because as well as being a stunning visual spectacle, Sutra is also a reflection of those intensive three months in the Shaolin temple, and as Thabet says, “sometimes we were really with the monks, sometimes we didn’t understand their life.”

Cherkaoui’s ability to blend western contemporary choreography, Shaolin martial arts and Gormley’s design is laudable. But it’s clear that had he chosen to work with anybody less proficient, Sutra could not have happened. “Rehearsals could be quite wild at times, and I won’t pretend we never had accidents,” says Thabet. “But the monks are like cats. If we do something wrong, they are super reactive and can stop very quickly – their attention is so strong all the time. So we were very lucky to be working with people at that level.”

• Sutra is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 17-18 May.