Preview: Shaolin Monks take on modern dance in Sutra

Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s work features Shaolin Monks, a brilliant set and infectious energy

Photograph: Hugo Glendinning
Perhaps the idea of watching the Shaolin Monks’ divine athleticism doesn’t thrill in China the way it does in New York, London or any of the many cities Sutra has graced since its 2008 premiere. But Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s masterwork is more than impressive stunts and spear-work; it is a mesmerising piece where the simple becomes complex and tradition morphs into modernity, as Sutra, or the thread, connects us all.

Sutra 2-Andree Lanthier
Photograph: Andree Lanthier

Sutra opens with a lone Western figure (Ali Thabet, Cherkaoui’s original role) and a ten-year-old monk hunched over a scale model of the stage, moving wooden pieces and teaching in broad hand gestures – a god overlooking his creation. But those pieces come to life in a brilliant set by premier British sculptor Antony Gormley. A series of man-sized wooden boxes, they are deceptively simple and shockingly flexible, forming a platform for cascading martial arts exercises, or urban skyscrapers for monks who have shed their robes and donned dark suits. At other times the boxes are a border wall, a set of giant bookshelves and coffins in a morgue. And in a startlingly beautiful moment, they form a bud that blossoms slowly, gracefully, into a lotus.

Born in Belgium to a Moroccan father and Flemish mother, Cherkaoui started dancing to music videos in his childhood, and by his teens was performing on television. At 23, he joined the prestigious Les Ballets C de la B, but eventually left and toured with fellow wunderkind Akram Khan performing their acclaimed duet, Zero Degrees. Seeking a new creative direction and to enrich his own movement vocabulary, Cherkaoui revisited another childhood fascination – kung fu. He spent months in the mountains of Henan Province living and training with the Shaolin Monks, sharing their early hours and austere lifestyles – although he does admit to breaking down and heading to a warm hotel for a few nights. But he found the monks eager collaborators who particularly enjoyed working with the unusual and flexible set.

Sutra 1-Andree Lanthier
Photograph: Andree Lanthier

Sutra has been touring semi-regularly since 2008 and shows no signs of popular or critical fatigue, although some of the monks have moved on (the original child is now one of the adults). Set to a haunting score by Szymon Brzóska, Sutra’s energy and elegance still have the power to amaze – and connect.

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