x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sutra marries martial mysticism to physicality of dance

Abu Dhabi hosts what is perhaps the most eclectic cultural event it has ever seen, a remarkable blend of kung fu and contemporary dance created by Shaolin monks and a Belgian choreographer.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

The dancers are Chinese, the choreographer is Flemish Moroccan, the set designer is British and the composer is Polish - dance, martial arts and music performance; Sutra could hardly be more international if it tried.

This stunning piece, appearing as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival tomorrow, is a remarkable blend of kung fu and contemporary dance created by the monks of the Shaolin Temple in Henan province, China, and the edgy Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But while it has been very successful internationally, Cherkaoui says the collaboration happened almost by chance.

"I first visited the Shaolin Temple in 2007," he explains. "I had the feeling that something in Shaolin martial arts was similar to contemporary dance, but mainly I was just desperate to get away from Europe, to be around people who thought in a completely different way. There I met the head of the temple's warrior monks - who is also an accomplished artist in calligraphy and music himself - and we began a discussion about choreography. He was interested, and willing to see me try something with the younger monks, so we started working together."

While Cherkaoui shared some common ground with the monks - he's a teetotal, yoga-practising vegetarian - finding a way to share ideas proved difficult at first.

"The monks are used to presenting their work as demonstrations of, say, three minutes' length, but to make a performance about their whole philosophy took a lot of work to find the right forms. The monks, luckily, are very culturally open and are completely connected with the reality of the 21st century. Some of them were familiar with hip-hop dancing, which after all is similar to kung fu movement. I started by bringing some of my dancers who did hip-hop to work with them. Slowly, they would realise there are many ways of moving, and that style might define people but it doesn't have to limit them."

This cross-cultural fusion deepened further with the arrival of the British sculptor Antony Gormley, best known for the vast Angel of the North sculpture outside Gateshead, England. After discussions with Cherkaoui, Gormley created 21 human-sized wooden boxes that the performers would rock, shift, climb on and enter to suggest tombs, skyscrapers, trees, plinths and even dominoes. A sculptural statement that is also mobile, Gormley's boxes help to shape the Shaolin monks' incredible physical prowess and discipline into an exploration of their beliefs.

"Whenever we were using the boxes," says Cherkaoui, "we were showing that a material never really disappears, but just transforms instead. If you chop down a tree and make a house out of it, you have killed a tree but also made a house."

This also affected a key area of the piece, he said - "the tension between being individual and being part of a community".

A chance meeting between Cherkaoui and the Polish composer Szymon Brzóska, whose music (performed live) became an integral part of Sutra, added another layer of meanings to the piece.

"This young composer came to me after a show and wanted me to listen to his music. It was so melancholic, had such emotional power, that it really suited the monks and helped make the piece more lyrical. Their movements can be very martial and harsh sometimes, with an elegance not always visible on the surface. This sad, lyrical music helped emphasise the fluidity rather than the percussion of their movement."

So what sort of impression might Sutra make in an extremely international city such as Abu Dhabi? In some ways, the piece provides a model for creative, respectful intercultural dialogue that is sure to have resonance in the Emirates. Cherkaoui believes that sitting between many cultures encourages people to question and reshape their values in a healthy way, something he himself experienced.

"Because I came from two cultures, I was working with value systems from an early age," he says. "I knew my Moroccan father's values were different from my European mother's, but that neither was wrong. I realised back then that while people value purity, it doesn't exist."

Stepping over the boundaries between traditions imagined to be pure and exclusive can be extremely productive, as Cherkaoui learnt in China.

"In many parts of the world, especially in Europe, we usually feel we have to choose between spirit and body," he says. "In the Shaolin Temple, both of these come together without contradiction. I found this incredibly powerful. The reason why I do dance is to connect the two, to engage people's minds in a physical way."


Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE