“This unique, profoundly imagined work takes the concept of cultural exchange to a new level.” (The Guardian)
The artistic quest of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui knows no boundaries, nor does his imagination. Here he returns to the Montreal stage with Sutra, a magnificent and highly unusual work that contrasts sharply with his earlier productions. With his young partner at his side, a l2-year-old monk, the eclectic choreographer orchestrates a ballet for 17 young Buddhist kung-fu masters … and 21 wooden boxes designed by British sculptor Antony Gormley. Transformed by the imagination of Cherkaoui, these boxes prove to be surprisingly versatile: shells, dwellings, boats or coffins, the box is never quite a box. Set to the superb music of Szymon Brzóska, performed live by five musicians, Sutra is a dazzling and poetic voyage, a breath of perfumed air from the mountains of China.
“With delicacy, respect and a sense of wonder, he shares with us his expedition to the Shaolin Temple. Beautiful and sentimental, Sutra points to the very heart of Cherkaoui’s humanist quest.” (Le Monde)
This artistic project with the Buddhist monks took shape at a time when Cherkaoui, after years of intense activity—countless creations and constant travel—felt the need for renewal, replenishment. When a friend suggested a journey into the world of these warrior monks, the choreographer immediately warmed to the idea. Since adolescence, Cherkaoui had admired Bruce Lee, an exceptional athlete who starred in a series of kung fu films that popularized the martial art in the West. He was also fascinated by these monks who, although pacifists, dedicated their lives to the martial arts.
The idea thus took root. He soon found himself before the master Shi Yanda in the most ancient of the Shaolin Buddhist temples in the Chinese province of Henan. “Shi Yanda told me how meditation is to quieten the mind and how kung-fu is to quieten the body, and that it's all about interconnectedness with animals, that amazing ability to become the essence of a tiger, a crane or a snake, to transform energy from cold to warm, yin to yang. I related to that, because when I choreograph, I feel increasingly inclined to want to think more like an animal and less like a human being.”On the same wavelength, the participants could now begin their creative work.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui first called upon Antony Gormley, a sculptor and visual artist with whom he collaborated on zero degrees, a duet choreographed and performed with Akram Khan. For Sutra, Antony Gormley created 21 human-sized, five-sided wooden boxes, as well as one box made of aluminum for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the only Westerner in the cast. Central to the production, the boxes evoke the notions of interior and exterior, one of the principal themes of Sutra. Cherkaoui’s next task was to invite Szymon Brzóska to compose the work’s score.
With his characteristic openness to the ideas of others, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui set to work, learning the gestures, rituals and rhythms of the Shaolin Temple monks, and devising a contemporary choreographic context for them. The result is an entirely new vocabulary, which respects the traditions of kung-fu while viewing it from a fresh perspective.
“The atmosphere of Sutra is playful yet serious. For these monks, kung fu is as much about the mind as it is about the body, and the juxtaposition of inner calm and outward energy, the unity of thought and action in a community that embraces all living things, is the point of this striking show.” (The Observer)
Produced by Sadler’s Wells, in collaboration with the Athens Festival, the Grec Festival de Barcelona, the Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg, La Monnaie in Brussels, the Festival d’Avignon, the Fondazione Musica per Roma, the Shaolin Cultural Communications Company and Toneelhuis, Sutra premiered at Sadler’s Wells in London on May 27, 2008. Since then, Sutra has crisscrossed Europe, enchanting audiences everywhere.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
“My first alliance with art was not dance, but drawing. As a child I wanted to draw reality and all the images I associated with it. For example, the clouds and what I could see in them, and people and the shadows they cast. They were surrealist-type drawings: realistic but never just the bare facts. It was my way of interpreting the reality around me. But eventually I started to get impatient. The two dimensions were no longer enough. Then I started dancing, and the nice thing about dancing is that you have to dance constantly to see the drawing. Moreover, you are both the pencil and the draughtsman. Dance is always a temporary drawing; it disappears when the movement ends. So the drawing can be written over, or rewritten at any time. Each performance has to be drawn again the next evening.”
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was born in Antwerp in 1976 to a Flemish mother and Moroccan father. His first experience as a choreographer was with the “contemporary musical” Anonymous Society, a salute to the music of Jacques Brel. Cherkaoui also danced in this production, for which he won several awards including the Fringe First Award and the Total Theatre Award in Edinburgh, and the Barclay Theatre Award in London.
Rien de rien, Cherkaoui’s first choreography as a member of Les Ballets C. de la B., toured Europe in 2000 and won the Special Prize at the BITEF Festival in Belgrade. Collaborating on this production was singer and dancer Damien Jalet, who introduced Cherkaoui to Italian folk songs, and who would strongly influence his later work. The six dancers in Rien de rien, whose ages ranged from sixteen to sixty, had a thorough command of many different styles and techniques: from classical ballet through salon dance to the hand gestures we all make when we speak. Cherkaoui regards them all as equally valuable sources for a contemporary dance language. This eclecticism is very much in keeping with a theme close to his heart: equality among individuals, cultures, languages and means of expression. Rien de Rien went on a marathon tour and earned him the Promising Choreographer Prize at the Nijinski Awards in Monte Carlo in 2002.
In July 2002 he took part in Le Vif du Sujet in Avignon, performing in It, a Wim Vandekeybus production. Inspired by a short story by Paul Bowles, this solo blends the specific languages of movement of the two choreographers. “Cherkaoui pulls out all the stops. His body seems to become uprooted, unreachable. When his foot touches the back of his head, it is as if the upper part of his body doesn’t know there is also a lower part. The body fights with itself, juggles with the air between his hands, twists itself into a thousand curves.” (De Standaard)
In the fall of 2002 Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, along with a number of dancers from the Sasha Waltz company, created D’avant for the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin, which combines 13th-century songs with contemporary dance. This highly physical production explores important social phenomena such as fanaticism, physical violence and moral apathy in a mosaic of styles. In March 2003 the choreographer continued his explorations of dance-music hybrids in the much-acclaimed Foi, which revolved around the nature and power of belief. In this piece, 14th-century Ars Nova music (sung by the Capilla Flamenca ensemble) intersects with traditional songs performed by Christine Leboutte, Damien Jalet, Joanna Dudley and the dancers. Embracing two manners of recounting history and its myths, of passing them on to the next generation, the work also embraces two ways of surviving, of resisting time and new trends. For this production, presented at Danse Danse in May 2003, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui won the Movimentos Dance Prize in Wolfsburg, Germany.
At the request of the Festival d’Avignon, in July 2004 Larbi presented a new project with Les Ballets C. de la B. entitled Tempus Fugit, which calls into question the absoluteness of time. People the world over seem to use the same concepts of time, but it is experienced and interpreted in different ways in different cultures. In Tempus Fugit an ensemble of fifteen performers from every corner of the world explored their own cultural past. Each of them tried to take control of time by means of diverse dance rhythms and tempos. The work focused on the Mediterranean, the Arab and Central African worlds and on their mutual relationships. In December 2004 Cherkaoui made In Memoriam at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, and then Loin for the Ballet du Grand Théatre de Genève, which premièred in April 2005 and was performed at Danse Danse in February 2009.
Also in 2005, Larbi worked with Akram Khan for the first time. The latter is also a dancer- choreographer with dual roots: the son of Bangladeshi parents, he was raised in England. Together, Cherkaoui and Khan created and danced in the production Zero Degrees,which explored the effects of their mixed cultural backgrounds. The work was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award in 2006, and went on to win two Helpman Awards in Australia in 2007.For België Danst, a special nation-wide edition of Bal Moderne staged in the open air in twelve Belgian cities simultaneously on July 16th 2005, Sidi Larbi worked with Damien Jalet to create a new choreography, Ik hou van jou/je t’aime tu sais, to music by Noordkaap and Marie Daulne.
The year 2006 also saw Cherkaoui shift his base back to his hometown of Antwerp: Guy Cassiers, the newly appointed director of the Het Toneelhuis theatre invited him to step on board as associate artist. Myth, his first production with Toneelhuis, was completed in 2007 and presented during the 2008-2009 Danse Danse season.
Corpus Bach followed in the spring of 2006, in which Cherkaoui and Nicolas Vladyslav explored the theatrical effect of Bach’s cello suites. The choreographer then returned to Monaco, where he made a new creation for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo: Mea Culpa, which premièred in April 2006. In this work, which centers on the relationship between Europe and Africa, the then 30-year-old choreographer poses several questions about his life and art. In August 2006 he created End for the Cullberg Ballet, which premiered at the Gothenburg Dance and Theatre Festival. Made during the fighting between Israel and Hezbolah in Lebanon, the piece clearly bears the marks of the geopolitical realities that paralleled its creation.
Although his agenda was becoming increasingly full, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui continued his collaborations. On May 12, 2007, audiences at the impressive new opera house in Copenhagen were to discover L’homme de bois, his ballet for eighteen dancers for the Royal Danish Ballet, set to music by Stravinsky. He also accepted Guy Cassier’s invitation to join the other Toneelhuis artists in making a site-specific work in Antwerp's Bourla Theatre, based on Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. In addition, at the request of the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, a museum in Paris, Cherkaoui and photographer-filmmaker Gilles Delmas created La Zon Mai, an extraordinary three-dimensional video installation in the shape of a house filled with footage of dancers, who reveal themselves through dance in the privacy of their homes.
September 2007 saw the première of Apocrifu (Apocrypha), commissioned by La Monnaie in Brussels. In this musical encounter with the Corsican a capella polyphonic singing of A Filetta, the choreographer also performs on stage. The work’s title is telling: a concise but key scene—in which the three dancers take turns as three-headed monsters reading aloud from the Talmud, the Koran and the Bible—makes it clear that the difference between apocryphal and canonical is more a question of perspective or authority than of content or value. In this way Cherkaoui treats, in a light-hearted manner, a broader theme that he has long cherished: the intrinsic equality of different cultures and religions.
This theme returns in Origine,a recent co-production of Toneelhuis and the Muziekcentrum De Bijloke (Ghent), which premiered in February 2008. Here the choreographer brings two male and two female dancers—all from different parts of the world—together with the Sarband Ensemble. According to critic Daniëlle De Regt, “The Sarband Ensemble perform and sing divinely. These religious chants, handed down by woman composers and choirs from bygone eras, are combined to create a sublime concert of sweet sirenic songs.” (De Standaard). Once again Cherkaoui chooses an unusual approach to a musical tradition, creating a leitmotif for a choreography that subtly and light-heartedly examines topical political issues, including immigration, alienation and rampant consumerism, before abandoning them for an increasingly abstract vocabulary.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui returns to his study of the notion and confusion of God in humanity’s mindscape, of man’s quest for the divine, with work on Babel, the third chapter of the trilogy that began with Foi and continued in Myth. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui won the prestigious Prize Kairos-Preis 2009. This distinction is given each year by the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung in Hamburg to “a creative personnality who has a major impact on art and culture in Europe”.
“With Sutra […] Cherkaoui enthralled Avignon audiences. The world created by Antony Gormley had much to do with this.” (La Libre Belgique)
A sculptor born in London in 1950, Antony Gormley began his career over 25 years ago. His works have earned him several prestigious awards, including the Turner Prize (1994) and the South Bank Prize for Visual Art (1999). In 1997 Gormley was made an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to sculpture and in 2003 he became a Royal Academician. His work has been exhibited extensively, with solo shows at the Whitechapel, Tate Gallery, British Museum, White Cube, the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the Kölnischer Kunstverein in Germany, the Venice Biennale, Kassel Documenta 8, as well as various institutions throughout Europe, Scandinavia, America, Japan and Australia. His Angel of the North and Quantum Cloud on the Thames in Greenwich are among the most celebrated examples of contemporary British sculpture.
Antony Gormley has revitalized the human image in sculpture through a radical investigation of the body as a place of memory and transformation, using his own body as subject, tool and material. Beginning in the 1990s, he began to explore the collective body and the relationship between self and other. His investigations into the human condition have been realised in highly acclaimed large-scale installations such as Critical Mass, Allotment, Inside Australia, Domain Field, Another Place, and his most recent exhibition, Blind Light, held at the Hayward Gallery in the spring of 2007.
For more information on Antony Gormley, visit his website at www.antonygormley.com.
“The melancholic music of Polish composer Szymon Brzoska, shakes Sutra to its core. » (Le Monde)
The young Polish composer Szymon Brzóska holds a Master’s degree from the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Music Academy in Póznan, where he studied under Miroslaw Bukowski. He then obtained a postgraduate diploma in composition from the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp, where he trained under Luc Van Hove. Between 2000 and 2004 he attended workshops directed by Marek Stachowski, Tapio Tuomela, Remigijus Merkelys, Toivo Tulev and Peteris Plakidis.
Still in the early phase of his career, Szymon Brzóska has already attracted considerable attention among professionals of classical and contemporary music: his works have been performed in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Poland. in 2003, his Antiphona Beatae Mariae Virginis was chosen by the Polish chamber choir Schola Cantorum Gedanensis for their concert at the Festival of Sacred Music Maria Auxilium Christianorum in Rumia, and in 2004 he won both the 3rd prize at the Adam Didur Composition Competition in Sanok (Poland) for Czarna róza (The Black Rose), a song for tenor and piano with words by Zbigniew Herbert, and the 2nd prize in the Composition Competition for Choral Passion Song in Bydgoszcz (Poland) for Vexilla Regis Prodeunt. In 2006, his Six Miniatures for cello and piano was chosen for a workshop with the prestigious Belgian Prometheus Ensemble, and he was also among those selected for the Composition Competition at the music@venture 2007 festival in Antwerp, which commissioned him to create a piece for the Belgian ensemble I solisti del vento, which they performed during the festival.
Brzóska has collaborated on scores for several film and theatre projects in Poland, and his soundtrack for the French film Le bruit des gens autour, directed by Diastème, was heard at a special pre-screening at the 2008 Festival d’Avignon, in collaboration with Utopia Cinema.
The Shaolin Monks
The term Shaolin, which can be translated as young or new forest, is the name of a group of Chinese monasteries where Chan Buddhism is combined with a specific type of martial arts. The Buddhist monks appearing in the production of Sutra belong to the original Shaolin Temple, established circa AD 477 on Mount Song, one of China’s five Sacred Mountains, some 600 kilometres south of Beijing. The first abbot of Shaolin was Bhadra, an Indian dhyana master who came to China in AD 464 to spread Chan Buddhist teachings. Observing the pitiful physical condition of the monks, whose only activities were study and meditation, Bhadra taught them breathing techniques, enabling them to strengthen their bodies and withstand the long hours of meditation. He also taught them martial arts as protection against bandits and wild animals.
While there are several schools and troupes offering kung fu productions inspired by the teachings of the Shaolin temples, the true disciples of Shaolin philosophy participate in only one artistic project and one tour. Their lives are otherwise devoted to the practice of martial arts and meditation. For these monks, perfecting the art of kung fu is the aim—and labour—of a lifetime. Their efforts, both physical and spiritual, are directed toward uniting body and soul, and to attaining a perfect harmony with the world around them.
Article Sutra: shaping the space on the creative process by Karthika Nair – All rights reserved
Article A Brief introduction to the Shaolin Monks by Meir Shahar – All rights reserved
With the monks of the Shaolin temple (China)
Direction and choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Visual creation and design: Antony Gormley
Music: Szymon Brzóska
With on stage Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and 17 monks of the Shaolin temple.
A production of Sadler’s Wells London
Coproductors: Athens Festival, Festival de Barcelona Grec, Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg, La Monnaie Brussels, Festival d’Avignon, Fondazione Musica per Roma and Shaolin Cultural Communcations Company
Photos: Hugo Glendinning
Sutra rehearsal video
Duration: 70 minutes – without intermission