Curiosity plays a part in wanting to see Sutra. It is hard to be disinterested in a show involving two-dozen Shaolin Monks performing Tai Chi and Kung Fu on a set designed by a Turner Prize winner. You don’t see that everyday.
A narrator (assistant choreographer Ali Thabet) uses blocks to teach a child the rules of a game (or perhaps of life). As the game proceeds Shaolin Monks emerge mirroring the contest using life-size blocks.
Sutra is full of surprises. In a show of this scale you expect spectacle but Antony Gormley’s set is a masterpiece of minimalism. It is such a simple idea so elegantly realised you wonder why no one has tried it before. Hallowed out life size blocks are used to conceal the cast and to suggest confinement or isolation. In an audacious move director/ choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui uses them like gigantic Lego bricks building a maze through which corporate wage-slaves scurry or a dormitory in which they twitch restlessly before tumbling out unrefreshed. A stunning ‘I can’t believe they just did that’ moment involves the cast using the blocks as massive dominos to devastating effect.
As the cast comprises monks you expect the show to be spiritual even sanctimonious in nature. The former aspect is present but the director avoids piety preferring to bring out the childlike fun of the dance. This is entirely appropriate as the performance of the Monks often reflects the mock play fights of the schoolyard albeit with considerably more grace. The childlike capacity to invent stories using ordinary objects is demonstrated by using blocks as silly props to suggest lifeboats or even voracious creatures capable of consuming the cast. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui cheekily brings a hint of Hollywood glamour as the blocks form petals of a flower and the Monks are choreographed to move in unison like the dancers in a Busby Berkley routine.
The evocative score by Szymon Brzoska is more western than eastern in nature. Played live the drone of the cello and powerful violin add a dramatic aspect to the dance.
The director wisely trusts the Monks to subtly achieve the spiritual aspect of the dance. Sutra represents a set of rules- specifically the sermons of Buddha- that hold things together. This concept is perfectly illustrated by the precision of the dancers moving seamlessly together demonstrating the use of weapons or the combat movements of their discipline. There is a startling humility in the approach of the dancers so that even the most stunning sequences – balancing alone on a pole – have a charming simplicity.
Sutra is a one of a kind experience and it is safe to say you haven’t seen anything like it.