How the collaboration between dance, physical set design and aural accompaniment supports the themes of Sutra (2008)

Sutra (2008) is an equal collaboration between Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Shaolin Monks, Szymon Brzoska and Antony Gormley which successfully takes the audience on a cultural journey. Cherkaoui found himself invited to the Shaolin Temple after an attempt to find respite from his hectic rise in fame after his previous work with Akram Khan, Zero Degrees (2005). Creatively fatigued, his visit was intended to bring perspective and allow him to spend time meditating. However, the connection he had with the Head Monk led to the suggestion that they work together to explore and experiment due to their curiosity of the “outside world”. Ultimately it was his decision to introduce Cherkaoui to Dong Dong, a 10 year old who became integral not only to the piece but to influencing Cherkaoui’s ability to work creatively again, due to Dong Dongs innocence, freedom and creativity. Gormley and Brzoska visited them at the temple to collect visual and aural inspiration of the monks lifestyle and the rehearsal process. Together, they created a multidisciplinary work of equal significance to enhance the portrayal of ideas such as Shaolin philosophy, Buddhism, the Western world and Cherkaoui’s personal journey.

Section 11 ‘City’ observes the monks as they appear to build skyscrapers, a key moment in the dance where they transition from the monks world to Cherkaoui’s western world, or perhaps it’s a comment on the development of New China vs Old China. The first thing we notice is the change in costume, from the light grey Shaolin robes to black, business-like suits with dark grey shirts tucked into their trousers. The stark contrast in style and colour supports the idea of the monks being away from the temple and in a Western city. This required Cherkaoui to communicate with the head monk, who needed to authorise that they could be seen wearing something other than their traditional robes and approve its distinct purpose in this section. The scene begins with the monks carrying Gormley’s large, wooden boxes from the inside so that only their legs can be seen, as they wander the stage bumping into each other, accompanied by Brzoska’s lighthearted and playful piano score which resembles that of an arcade game. One by one they tilt the boxes forwards in set places to create an image of skyscrapers on the stage. Cherkaoui’s interest in lego inspired this playful building section, made possible by Gormley’s vision to use simple boxes to create different scenes and the live band who can adapt the score to suit the monks timings. The section however develops into a chaotic scene as the monks perform kung fu style lotus kicks, spins, jumps and rolls as they weave in between the boxes. This busy image is enhanced by the music which builds stress and pace through the repetitive drums, high pitch violin and abrupt descending keyboard notes. Throughout the section all three aspects of dance, set and music change at the same time to cement the ideas of building and transitioning from one world to another. The section seeks to take the audience on a transition into Cherkaoui’s western world, and is effective because of the tight-knit collaboration between all three aspects.

‘Box’, section 5, aims to reflect on the origins of Sutra by portraying how Cherkaoui felt lost and creatively fatigued after his rapid rise to fame after Zero Degrees (2005). It’s focus is on isolation and feeling trapped. The section begins as the lights go out, putting the stage in darkness with one solid white spotlight on the vertical, metal box stood centre stage. The discussions between Cherkaoui and Gormley led to the success of this section, as Cherkaoui insisted that his box be made of metal in contrast to the monks wooden boxes, so that he could stand out as being different. The spotlight cutting through the darkness further creates a claustrophobic feel, aptly supporting the theme. This setting affected the movement content that was possible as we see Cherkaoui twist and fold around himself, reaching and grabbing the sides of the box to create panic. Dong Dong enters and their duet, half improvised, explores the space available. Cherkaoui lifts Dong Dong up, physically supporting him onto his shoulder until he can balance by pushing against the boxes in a crouch position. Cherkaoui slides down and copies him, head in his hands, hinting at their relationship during the collaboration process as they support each other physically and emotionally. The music provides an emotional framework to enhance the idea of the section, slowing the pace and layering a foreboding melody to set a dark and meaningful tone. Altogether, the multidisciplinary approach is effective in emotionally and visually engaging the audiences, focusing us directly on movement content without distractions and creating the illusion of being trapped inside ones mind.

Sutra reflects Shaolin Philosophy and Buddhist symbolism, particularly in section 6 ‘Lotus’ which depicts a religious or meditative ceremony. The dance, physical set design and music are interlinked to strengthen this idea. Dong Dong sits on top of a vertical, wooden box centre stage performing slow, meditative gestures. For example, he takes a deep breath in, raising his palms up in front of himself and then lowers them as he breathes out. He also performs the prayer gesture sat cross-legged. The tam tam, a Chinese gong, initiates the ceremony whereby the adult monks slowly tilt and lower the boxes surrounding Dong Dong, to create an image of a lotus flower opening. The lotus flower is important to Buddhist philosophy as it symbolises purity of body, speech and mind. Dong Dongs young age links to purity and innocence and Brzoska’s score sets a calm mood. Brzoska in particular was successful in taking the audience on an emotional journey by creating a score which reflected the soundscape of the Shaolin Temple, collected when he visited during the collaboration process. The drawn out cello notes and violin melody provides an emotional framework which structures key moments eg. the initiation of the ceremony. Alone, each component hints at a different aspect of Shaolin Philosophy. By using a multidisciplinary approach Cherkaoui was able to include multiple aspects of Shaolin Philosophy at once, allowing the audience to see, hear and feel the intended themes of meditation. Altogether the collaboration of dance, set and music complement each other to strongly portray the themes.

The work succeeds in providing an engaging and thought-provoking work which accurately displays the strengths and culture of the Shaolin monks whilst also staying true to the collaborators personal and professional tastes. Brzoska provided an emotional framework to allow audiences to understand the intended moods without focusing too heavily on Chinese music, instead working to his own strengths. Gormley maintained a simplistic vision after watching the monks move “like clones” in their practice, inspiring the creation of the 21 identical wooden boxes, made of a natural material to reflect their lifestyle. Cherkaoui allowed the monks, especially Dong Dong, to take the lead in the movement material to accurately represent the chosen themes. Overall, Sutra celebrates diversity, culture and the gift of the arts.


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