Sutra @ The Playhouse (Brisbane Festival), 8th September 2010 – Live Review

Review: Lana Harris

[Image courtesy Brisbane Festival – Photo Credit: Hugo Glendinning]

Bodies twirling through the air, gravity defying leaps and rod straight limbs in perfect turns: the Shaolin monks have come to town. Part of a new contemporary dance performance, their fighting skills are being used to story tell and entertain in another’s vision.

Artist Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is the man who has married the martial with the contemporary, travelling to China to live with and learn from the monks. His involvement in the temple life must have been deep and overwhelmingly positive: not only has Cherkaoui managed to capture the monks centuries old, tradition honed skills and use them effectively in a modern, western performance style, he convinced them to leave their Buddhist temple and to perform as part of the Brisbane Festival.

Cherkaoui’s devotion to Shaolin culture is further revealed not just through his choreography of the work, but by his starring role in the piece, where he melds new skills with existing talents. Cherkaoui is a fluid and flexible performer whose movements are often a counterpoint to the monks staccato interchanges. His closest match and companion during the piece is the only child in the performance. Throughout the piece, the white male and the young boy’s difference is emphasised: they play and bond together, alternately both more and less adept than the uniform group of adult monks – who are dressed identically and perform their roles with precision synchronisation. Their moves are sequential, their bodies conduits for a wave of repeated movements rather than working as individual performers.

Pine boxes that can fit a human inside, underneath and on top of them, depending on their current orientation, are the main stage props used. The functionality of the boxes matches the monks’ functional robes – loose but tied tight around the feet for maximum movement. Cherkaoui’s box starts off as different, a silver shell for him in the sea of wood, but later he is able to access a wooden box. The change forms part of the evolving narrative of the show, a lot of which is told through the placement of boxes and monks, and often through the juxtaposition of man in, on and against these rectangular prisms. The only other props used to tell this story are a long thin pole and the monks later dress change to western style suits.

The performance forms questions about narrative, purpose, spirituality and cultural rituals’ role in the contemporary. Cherkaoui’s fascination with the monks’ culture is passed to the audience – if this was the goal of the work, it was a resounding success. Even without pondering deeper meanings, the stunning physical prowess of all the performers involved makes this a show to be seen.

Review: Lana Harris

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