Review: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Antony Gormley, Monks from the Shaolin Temple in Sutra at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 27-31 May 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 29 May 2008

If one spends a whole life devoted to a particular skill then the product of this singular endeavour is bound to be exceptional brilliance. So it is with these Buddhist monks, only they haven’t just spent their young lives developing the Shaolin martial arts; they are but the present point in a continuum that stretches back in an unbroken line of lives for 1,500 years.

The participation of these 18 young monks in ‘Sutra’ fulfils a boyhood dream for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Director, Choreographer and Performer), since his fascination with Kung-Fu goes back to childhood. To complete the package, he has once again invited Antony Gormley to design his set, which Gormley has created in 21 man-sized boxes that – like his white mannequins in ‘zero degrees’ – are so integral to the movement that they become quasi performers. An original score – occasionally beautiful in its haunting melodies – composed by Szymon Brzóska, is played live by him and four other musicians on a platform at the rear of the stage behind a barely penetrable, transparent curtain.

With all this to look forward to, perhaps the bar of my expectation was set too high because I left feeling that the performance hadn’t reached the heights of my anticipation, although it was still a pleasant and entertaining way of spending 80 minutes. The monks’ freedom to let rip with their huge leaps and fast/slow tumbling was generally constrained by the lack of free space around the boxes; but when the single organism of their combined movement was allowed to flow, as in an early spectacular ripple of energy, sequentially leaping off and climbing back onto the central platform of the upturned boxes, the effect was stunning. The main fight scene, however, lacked the range of movement and apparent spontaneity that Kung-Fu leads us to expect.

It was, by and large, all about Gormley’s boxes – big Lego pieces without the knobbly bits – which mutate into every possible configuration: as sentry boxes around the stage; as a wall of coffins; as tumbling dominoes; and even the petals of a flower. And we saw every conceivable use of the space inside and between the boxes. Larbi himself, excelled in the breadth of movement he squeezed out of a solo inside the box, which became a duet with his young sidekick (Shi Yandong). But the effect of the monks leaping from the top of six foot high boxes or dropping to the floor inside their coffins, or suddenly springing up from hiding places between the boxes became irritatingly predictable and repetitive.

There was a pleasant, gentle humour to the work, which was also most effectively carried through Larbi. Wearing a baggy, ill-fitting jacket and wide trousers tied at the ankles with his balding high forehead, straggly beard and pale complexion he looked spookily like the late Kenny Everitt caught unwittingly on the set of a Kung-Fu film. But when he moves, his rubber, seemingly boneless flexibility sets him apart even from the Shaolin Monks. Larbi joins in with the final group Martial Arts sequence and – even without the 1,500 years of history – he manages to meld seamlessly into the monks: perhaps a little less free in the shoulders and arms, but certainly it’s a bold effort to inherit the brilliance of their singular devotion.

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