Sutra, a genre-defying work combining the efforts of 17 Shaolin monks, five live musicians, one contemporary dancer, and more than 20 large-scale set pieces designed by Antony Gormey, began innocently enough. It started when Belgium-based choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – easily one of the most compelling dancemakers working today – stayed at the Shaolin Temple on his trip to Henan Province in China. As Cherkaoui began to talk with the monks living at Shaolin, the collaboration began taking shape. The result is a piece that blends Cherkaoui’s contemporary choreography with the kung-fu movement that Shaolin monks devote their lives to perfecting.
In a 2008 interview with the Guardian, Cherkaoui explained that he is interested in changing the “collective clichés” that often accompany different forms of movement. By removing the outward aesthetic with which the public identifies any given style – a hip-hopper’s baggy clothing or a martial artist’s black-belted garb, for instance – Cherkaoui hopes to get rid of the visual cues that bar us from appreciating “the essence of the movement.” This ethic is clearly present in Sutra, a work whose spare visual landscape is balanced expertly by the complexity and depth of its choreography. Throughout the piece, the smooth, organic quality of Cherkaoui’s own movement language is contrasted with the much sharper, but equally fluid, kung-fu. The resulting juxtaposition is surprisingly rich; seeing each style through the lens of the other pushes the viewer to consider both from a new perspective, a process that is aided by the theme of repetition that runs throughout the work. Perhaps this is what makes Cherkaoui such an enthralling artist – he is able to take his subject and hold it up to the light, turn it around, and present the audience with something they’ve seen a hundred times before, but in a way that is utterly, almost unrecognizably, new.