by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Antony Gormley, Szymon Brzoska and Monks from the Shaolin Temple
Singapore Arts Festival 2009
22-23 May 2009
When it comes to performances that involve monks and Kung Fu, I’m always wary that it would turn out to be just another Kung Fu demonstration. I refuse to watch those touring performances that claim to be Shaolin this and Shaolin that because, in principal, I do not agree that spiritual men should join the circus and that their sacred duty is not to entertain.
The very act of perfecting the martial art is to use the body as a measure of discipline, endurance and perseverance for the development of mental strength to cultivate the spiritual mind. In a similar vein, disciples of western dance forms also share the same religious fervour going by the practice-makes-perfect mantra to arrive at technical perfection. The challenge for Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Larbi) is to manage the delicate matter of examining intercultural similarities and differences underlined with the philosophy of Buddhism and to conceptualize a vision that marries all these elements.
Ultimately, Sutra turned out to be quite a vision – a ‘monk-trous’ feat that converged choreography with architecture, in a collision of movement, structure, space and illusion.
Structure, space and illusion have always been the domains of architecture. And because of its constant presence and the frequent interplay of these elements throughout the work, I’m inclined to put British sculptor and collaborator Antony Gromley as Larbi’s choreographic equal. In many ways, the lidless, man-size wooden box, embodying the Buddhist concept of the body as delimited space, conceived by Gromley inspired many parts of the choreography. The various structural formations necessitated and dictated a number of movements.
On its own, the box served Larbi’s imagination. It becomes what he wants it to be – life boat, coffin, swimming pool, tight cave, and even stairs! Perhaps the inclusion of the child monk represents this child-like versatility towards imagination. Give an object to a child and he will turn it into a toy or anything he fancies in a wonderful world of make-belief.
Collectively, the boxes, like oversized Lego blocks, formed larger-than-life structures –maze, pillars, pedestals, walls, arches, stacked coffins, stage, eroding cliff, waves, snail shells, and lotus. At times, Larbi is the voodoo witch constructing the formation of the miniature version of the wooden boxes while the monks obediently move the man-size boxes about following suit. It is possible that the ‘invisible hand’ that motions the monks is meant to indicate the presence of a higher being in control. At other times, Larbi meandered amongst the monks as an observer attempting to emulate them but always unsuccessful as the clumsy outsider. Even Larbi’s box is painted silver, designed to stand out from the other unvarnished boxes, and to differentiate him.
The hollow, lidless box allowed room for illusion. The monks disappear and reappear on stage by simply immersing themselves in the box and then emerging again on cue, like a monk-in-a-box. Depth and gravity, or the lack of it, within the box is created at a whim. Depth and dimension too was created on the stage itself by virtue of the organized configurations.
When the monks appeared looking rather smart in their handsome suits, I wondered if Larbi was poking fun at Stephen’s Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, where the axe-wielding Chinese triad wore similar attire.
Inevitably, the monks did do some Kung Fu demonstration. Thankfully this did not make up the bulk of the performance. At the very least, these demonstrations of various fighting styles mimicking animals such tiger, toad, praying mantis, scorpion, and the mythical monkey god, and some weapon play, served to show us the martial art in its original form so that we can later appreciate the comparison when the martial art crosses dance. And, at the very least, we could also marvel at the strength, agility, balance, and precision displayed by these warrior monks honed through years of practice.
Larbi’s direction, together with the music composed by Szyman Brzoska, brought the two (martial art and dance) disciplines closer. In effect, we saw the monks ‘dance.’
Like fingers running through a scale, in which one note follows the other, the monks, lined up in a row, each echoed the movement of the monk in front creating what looked like a visual sound wave resounding with increasing velocity. This was accompanied by sounds from movement – body slaps and involuntary shouts that comes with the use of force. The Strings become more intense the more the force. Even the pause is important in the score. In the silence we hear the whoosh of the wind interrupted by blows, and the ruffle of the monk’s uniform when they kick and jump.
When the monks sat atop the pedestals, soft musical phrases accommodate the tempo of graceful hand movements like sign language spoken in chorus. On the ground, the monks seem to be practicing Tai Chi amidst a serene, quiet atmosphere. The naturally slow and graceful Tai Chi movements have a subconscious connection to music, which culminates beautifully into an elegant Eastern waltz.
All in, Sutra offers a compelling perspective that places the essence of the philosophy and faith behind the Shaolin tradition into the contemporary context using the vectors of movement, space and music.
Special thanks to:
National Arts Council, Singapore
Singapore Tourism Board