What impact has Sutra had on the development of the independent contemporary dance scene in Britain?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra premiered at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 2008, introducing modern audiences to a fantastic collaboration between himself, the Shaolin Monks, Szymon Brzoska and long time collaborator Antony Gormley. In 18 episodes it explores Cherkaoui’s personal journey as he navigates his rapid rise to fame after the success of Zero Degrees (2005) with Akram Khan, leading him to find respite in the Shaolin Temple. What was meant to be a simple break for him to recover from his creative fatigue, became a new project as the monks invited him into their world and wanted to learn about Cherkaoui’s world. The work is a strong statement for changing peoples perceptions of what dance is and what dance can be, challenging their understanding of cultural exchange, personal journeys and accessibility.

When we consider the question “what is different about Sutra?” I think the first thing that comes to mind is another question – is it dance? The work primarily uses Kung Fu movement vocabulary, with utilitarian gesture, pedestrian gesture, yoga and release technique being interspersed throughout, in that order of prominence. In section 13, Animals, five monks perform solos depicting a different style of Kung Fu: frog, tiger, crane, snake, scorpion. The Frog style masters leaps and take-downs, evident when the monk crouches low on all fours with the knees turned out, before leaping to raise his whole body flat into the air, landing strongly back into the crouch. Towards the second half of the section, Cherkaoui challenges a monk performing in the Scorpion technique by copying the position, crouching with his chest low to the ground and raising his back leg to create a scorpions tail. However, Cherkaoui develops this by incorporating his own style, extending the back leg further and arching his back to create a flexible split position, or bringing the front leg off the floor in front of him and balancing on his hands, both connecting to his yoga training. At the same time, we can see an ensemble of monks using utilitarian gesture to change the physical setting behind them from a row of coffins into a dormitory. They work efficiently to move the boxes in the quickest and most practical way, pushing and dragging the boxes to lay in sets of 4, to then lift the boxes in one clean motion to stack one on top of each other. It is typical of Cherkaoui’s works to feel like you are watching a piece of theatre through his multidisciplinary approach to choreography, and the absence of pure dance challenges the audiences perceptions of what dance is and what dance can be. This is of great importance to the development of the independent contemporary dance scene in Britain (ICDSIB) as it stays true to the New Dance principles which unofficially arose during the original contemporary dance boom in the 60’s. To be able to create whatever kind of performance you like and to be respected as equal despite the movement styles used both form the foundations of contemporary dance in Britain. Cherkaoui continues to make experimental developments to the dance scene 40 years later by introducing Kung Fu and utilitarian gesture as the main movement vocabulary.

Another aspect of Sutra that sets it apart is that it is a product of successful collaboration. It would be unfair to say that this is a new concept, or even a modern concept, as collaboration can be traced back at least 100 years ago, with a famous example being the collaboration between Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky for the iconic Rite of Spring with Ballet Russes, but I digress. To me, what makes this special is that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui never intended to create a new work whilst on his travels, and the Shaolin Monks he met had never taken part in a modern performance before. What started as friendly curiosity developed into a serious discussion of cultural exchange. Cherkaoui shared that his reason for visiting the Shaolin Temple was to find respite after his rapid rise to fame, following the success of Zero Degrees (2005) with Akram Khan. During his time there he went on a personal journey of acceptance as he found himself relating to the monks lifestyle in many ways. The monks were equally curious to explore the Western world, especially Dong Dong, the 10 year old monk, who developed a friendship with Cherkaoui and ultimately was the whole reason that Cherkaoui became so inspired to create the work. Cherkaoui observed the monks daily rituals, religious ceremonies and Kung Fu training which became not only the main subject matter of the work, but informed the episodic structure which loosely visualises their actual exchange. In section 5, Box, Cherkaoui and Dong Dong perform a duet inside one singular metal box which has been isolated in the centre by a single, white spotlight cutting through the dark stage. Cherkaoui explores the confined space with his hands, using his “liquid limbs” to twist, fold and weave around himself, creating a sense of feeling trapped and isolated. He crouches down with his head in his hands, which Dong Dong copies as they improvise how they can move and fit together in the narrow box. At one point Cherkaoui unfolds and rolls out of the box into the darkness, to which Dong Dong reaches out for him and pulls him back into the light. The idea of this section is to portray Cherkaoui’s feelings of creative fatigue, battling his own mind, and introduce the notion that Dong Dong was the spark that he needed to escape. Later we see Dong Dong depicting Buddah in section 6, Lotus, sitting on top of a box with his hands in prayer position after orchestrating the monks to lower the circle of boxes surrounding him to create an image of a lotus flower opening. Cherkaoui sits in his metal box downstage right, facing the centre and imitating the prayer position but the wall of his box separates him from the religious ceremony. This hints at Cherkaoui’s stay in the Shaolin Temple where he was not allowed to attend most of the intimate ceremonies. Section 11, City, observes the cultural exchange from Cherkaoui to the monks as they place the boxes vertically to create an image of skyscrapers. Whilst dressed in black business suits and shirts they begin to walk, then jog, and then run through the pathways created in-between the boxes, depicting a bustling Western city. It’s not until the last section, Courtyard, that we finally see Cherkaoui and the monks perform the same movement vocabulary in unison to signify the end of his journey of acceptance into the monks lives. The collaboration between Cherkaoui and the Shaolin monks was unique and Sutra is only the product of what appears to be more important, the personal process. This impacts the way choreographers should feel about the process of creating such personal works, inspiring them to push beyond what they know to create something truly unique. But I think the main impact of collaborating with non-dancers is that it creates intrigue, pushing choreographers to think differently about their art form, and is a beacon for accessibility, another New Dance philosophy.

The contribution of Antony Gormley, the set designer, is equally important to the final product, as his own professional interest supported the delivery of the themes to the audience members. Gormley’s work tends to explore the spaces that bodies can fit physically, but also figuratively in terms of identity as seen in Zero Degrees (2005) and his installation pieces such as Another Place, the 100 iron men on Crosby Beach in Liverpool. Gormley accepted the invitation to collaborate on Sutra because he was inspired by the idea that the monks had a different reason for movement to any contemporary dancer he had worked with before. He suggested that he created one box per monk, stating in an interview:

“I had this idea you would use four assemblies, maybe the flat form, the wall, and that they would be constant while the evolution of the dance took place. In the end Larbi integrated the boxes entirely into the movement, it was amazing, it was extraordinary. They weigh 32 kilos, the 22 monks are very physical but they’re quite slight and it’s a tribute to both them and Larbi that they managed by the end to look like these moves with the boxes were entirely inevitable and smooth.”

Antony Gormley

After many disagreements and some back and forth, Gormley accepted Cherkaoui’s suggestion that his box be different to the monks to isolate him. The monks boxes are made of wood, a natural material that supports their simple eco lifestyle. Cherkaoui’s is made of aluminium, creating an industrial and cold feel. His box is often isolated, for example in section 6, Lotus, as described earlier. In the second half of section 12, Pagodas, the monks seamlessly begin to drag their boxes in circular pathways around the stage. Cherkaoui tries to mimic them, however he finds himself trying to drag the box whilst stood inside it. As a soloist he explores the feeling of being stuck, panicking as he observes the monks and desperately tries to replicate their movement. The silver box suddenly feels heavy, the weight of the modern world dragging Cherkaoui down. The simplicity of this contrast in material makes it very easy for audiences to understand the intention and therefore engage, or even relate, to the themes of the piece. The overall impact of this is an increase in audience members through making a personal and diverse work accessible via imagery.

In conclusion, Cherkaoui’s Sutra is a gleaming example of how modern dance today continues to push boundaries and challenge audiences perceptions of dance. It stood firmly in the repertoire of Sadler’s Wells, the home of contemporary dance, introducing a new movement language, educating audiences on a new culture and experimenting with the way set design can be manipulated not only as part of the performance, but in a way that enriches and defines the performance. Overall, the increase in diversity of the audience members, from those who were interested in seeing non-dancers perform, to those who found their way to the theatre through their interest in a specific collaborator, increased revenue to the dance scene through the Associate Artists programme at Sadler’s Wells.

On a final note, Sutra is packed with interesting and diverse examples of experimentation, cultural exchange and the process of choreography and this article could be x3 as lengthy but I hope this provides you with a base of understanding of the impact that Sutra has had on the development of the independent contemporary dance scene in Britain.


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