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Cherkaoui’s “Sutra” Features Monks in Boxes

by Bonnie Rosenstock
November 12, 2018
Rose Theater
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Frederick P. Rose Hall
10 Columbus Circle (Broadway at 60th Street)
New York, NY 10023
(212) 258-9800
The programming for Lincoln Center’s ninth annual White Light Festival (October 16-November 18, 2018) highlighted dancers and choreographers whose works cross borders and fuse cultural influences. Moroccan-Flemish choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Sutra” (October 16-18) featured young Buddhist monks from the original Shaolin Temple, located near Dengfend City in the Henan Province of China, which was established in 495 CE by monks originally from India. These monks not only flew across time and frontiers to get here, but also soared through the air and across the stage, melding Larbi’s contemporary dance with their ancient martial arts practices. And what a thrill ride it was.

The word “sutra” from the Sanskrit, is a short or lengthy written rule, through which philosophy, spirituality, ritual, the arts, law, ethics, etc., is used to teach guiding principles. In Larbi’s “Sutra,” presented in one hour without intermission, he explores the Shaolin school of Chan Buddhism’s main principles: the interconnectedness of body and soul and total harmony with one’s surroundings. The Shaolin monks follow a strict Buddhist tenet, with martial arts (kung fu and t’ai chi) as an integral part of their daily practice. In popular culture, the monks have been portrayed as fierce fighters (which they are), but with all semblance of spirituality and rigorous discipline omitted. Larbi’s work put this essential part of their training back into the mix.

The result is a work of collaborative beauty: Larbi’s contemporary choreography; the young monks’ otherworldly training; the visual creation and spare set design by British sculptor Antony Gormley; and the haunting original score by Polish composer Szymon Brzóska on piano, accompanied by four other fine musicians.

The set pieces were human-sized rectangular wooden boxes that the monks and Larbi moved around the stage to transmute into columns, walls, doors, coffins, beds, closets, which they climbed into, climbed onto, hung from, hid behind, knocked down with a domino effect, every possible use of form, function and space explored—like life, nothing is permanent; like the mind, it is emptied and filled at will.

Larabi was both participant and observer. He mostly interacted with a young monk, Xing Kaishuo, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, whose tumbling, acrobatics and fighting moves were just as astounding as the older monks. The performance consisted of group and solo displays of sublime physicality, both fast and furious, and the slow, graceful flow of t’ai chi. The monks used their individual bodies as powerful instruments or added a fighting weapon (long metal swords and wooden poles) for close combat. Alternating with the rapid pace were moments of intense stillness of mind, control of breath and regrouping of the boxes.

You can view the glorious, entertaining evening as pure spectacle, or like Larbi and the monks, you can look beyond and within. Either way, follow your bliss.

Photo © & courtesy of Andree Lanthier

Photo © & courtesy of Andree Lanthier

Photo © & courtesy of Andree Lanthier

Photo © & courtesy of Hugo Glendinning

Photo © & courtesy of Hugo Glendinning

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