Watching one of Sadler’s Wells most popular productions which returned for a short run UK (3-6 April) Sutra redefined the spectacular power and magic of collaboration at the highest level. Viewed by an amazing 160,000 people worldwide in 55 cities across 27 countries, Sutra has award winning choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui join hands with Turner prize winner Antony Gormley, along with 17 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China in the first collaboration between Western artists and the Shaolin Temple.
Sutra, a Sanskrit word meaning rope or connection, creates fluid images on stage with a striking design of 21 wooden boxes which fold and turn, shift and evolve in an ever-changing environment for the performers- 17 monks from the original Shaolin Temple along with Ali Thabet ( in the role played originally by Sidi Larbi). Working with dynamics of scale, space and movement on a flat grey stage – the dancers evoke several fascinating images and landscapes, Gormley’s men on the roof, men on the ramparts, war, sea journeys, budding lotus flowers, men in black in the big city and men amongst ruins. The monks displayed flourishes of martial art ( kung fu and tai chi) and then contained space in narrow boxes which transformed as graves, highrise towers, Greek columns, bunker beds.
One of Europe’s most exciting choreographers, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has created 20 memorable pieces which include zero degrees with Akram Khan, Olivier award winning Babel, Dunas with flamenco dancer Maria Pages, Joe Wright’s film Anna Karenina and currently working on a tango inspired project for Sadler’s. In a career spanning 40 years, Antony Gormley has increasingly taken his work out of the gallery to collaborative and interactive participation as in the acclaimed One and Other commission in Trafalgar Square. Winner of the Turner Prize, South Bank Prize for Visual Arts and an OBE, Gormley has also worked with choreographer Hofesh Schester at the Barbican last year.
Sutra is accompanied by a specially commissioned striking live score including piano, strings and percussion by Polish composer Szymon Brzoska who has previously collaborated with Cherkaoui in Dunas.
The show reflects profound imagination and riveting energy in the manner in which flat space is transformed by sheer physicality of the Shaolin monks. The monks are from the original Shaolin Temple in the Hennan province of China, established in 495 AD where they follow strict Buddhist doctrine and discipline. While they display mercurial, transformative power, Ali Thabet is all fluid, waterlike grace in his flexibility. Ali, trained at the National Centre for Circus Arts in France, first worked with Sidi Larbi in 2004. His connect with the child monk and their miniature cube model games were replicated with precise accuracy but magnified scale by the monks on/in/under/over the boxes.. The little monk offers the child’s perspective with humour, mischief, innocence and we share his profound wonder as the stage shifts and the players game unfolds.
The Guardian describes the production as taking ” the concept of cultural exchange to a whole new level”. Sutra is certainly about connections- to history, to cultures, to narratives, to space and to the fertility of imagination. Clearly an unmissable event as the packed houses testify. The audience walk out trying to interpret messages, discuss images and meanings. Which is what art is meant to do- stimulate the imagination.
( Sangeeta Datta is a writer- director- singer-cultural commentator based in London. She is Director of the performing arts company BAITHAK UK and SD Films ).