Tuesday November 2, 2010 - As part of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, SUTRA is presented at the Rose Theatre in the Time-Warner Building at Columbus Circle. Read about the work here.
Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and composer Szymon Brzoska collaborated previously for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's production of ORBO NOVO. As soon as the performances of SUTRA were announced, I knew it was something I would want to see...and hear. I was not disappointed.
SUTRA is both visually and sonically striking. It reflects on the time spent by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui among the Shaolin monks who came to know the choreographer simply as "Larbi"; that name is endearingly called out by the small boy who throughout the piece is learning the ways of the monks and who at the end is ready to become one of them.
In an interview with londondance.com, the choreographer spoke of his initial contact with the Shaolin monks:
"My work has always been a bit of a search for a moral code -- trying to find the right behaviour to have. In a sense I'm very zen -- but at the same time I'm very not. A Japanese producer friend Hisashi Itoh asked me, 'what are the things you love?', and I was talking about yoga, singing and about martial arts. He had a contact with the monks of the Shaolin Temple, and he offered to introduce me. My first intention was just to go there to meet them, not to work with them. I went ...and I had an incredible experience. It was only for five days. But I really felt suddenly home: I felt home."
Larbi plays himself in SUTRA. It opens with him and the small boy seated opposite one another in quiet contemplation. Onstage are sixteen wooden boxes the size of telephone booths (remember telephone booths?); Sidi's own box is made of shiny metal. The monks one by one emerge from their boxes and SUTRA is underway.
For sixty minutes the monks cavort in groups or solos, clambering over their boxes which are re-arranged in spectacular patterns.
The movement style is rooted in martial arts...
...and the boxes become part of the choreography. The monks move the boxes into several different formations in the course of the work, from a giant bookcase (where each monk has a sleeping compartment) to a ritualistic 'Stonehenge' configuration.
Choreographer and acolyte, above.
At the back of the stage behind a scrim, five musicians are seated: composer Szymon Brzoska is at the piano and there are two violins, cello and a percussionist. The score - Eastern European in flavour - is often dreamlike and evocative but the loud noises of the boxes being manipulated by the dancers are also part of the soundscape.
The dancers first appear in anonymous grey work clothes; later in a meditative passage (above) they all wear black suits. At the end, in grey trousers and shirtless, they perform some of their most daring physical manoeuvres and these extend into the curtain calls.
The audience watched in engrossed silence and gave the young monks (17-year-olds as I understand it), the choreographer and the musicians a rousing reception at the end as the monks appeared one by one coming down the diagonal in tremendous tumbling routines and hands-off flips.