I first saw Sutra during its premier at Sadler’s Wells in 2008, so I was interested to revisit the piece five years on. The piece began life in 2007 when, following on from their collaboration with Akram Khan on Zero Degrees, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui asked Antony Gormley to work with him again on a piece that would feature young monks from the Shaolin Temple in China. Gormley’s contribution, unsurprisingly, goes beyond straightforward set design: the wooden boxes he created form an integral part of the visual language of Sutra.
The opening image is that of a white bearded man playing a game with a Chinese boy monk in the corner of the stage. The game looks a little like dominoes, involving a series of wooden pieces that can be placed in various configurations. These configurations are then reflected by the configurations of the life sized boxes, which contain the adult monks. The structure of the piece then takes the form of a kind of journey whereby the man and the boy have to navigate their way through each new level/configuration. When I first saw the piece, the white man was Larbi Cherkaoui himself and, though Ali Thabet who performed the night I saw it last week has been involved with the project since its inception, I found it hard to make sense of the piece unless I assumed that Thabet was playing Cherkaoui.
This is because I read Sutra as being, at least in part, about the difficulties of cross-cultural collaboration. Cherkaoui/Thabet is an outsider and his point of contact into the world of the monks is through this young boy (maybe eleven years old). Everything about the way this man moves sets him apart from the monks. He is all watery sweeping motions that you might associate with Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography, drawing on the legacy of Les Ballets C de la B, where he began his career. The boy has been raised in the monk’s world (or at least at much closer proximity), where movements tend more towards impressive, traditionally masculine, demonstrations of strength: fire instead of water. Both are standing at the threshold, eager to learn but not yet fully integrated into that world. What is longed for is also terrifying because it is unknown. I wondered if the Cherkaoui character was the boy’s imaginary friend. Perhaps in order to feel like less of an outsider, he imagines someone who is more of an outsider than he will ever be. There were moments when it felt like either of the two principal characters could have been dreamt up by the other.
There are many brilliant set-pieces that integrate Gormley’s structures with the action: the most memorable perhaps being the human dominoes falling into each other. There’s little sense that our two heroes are making progress in their integration into the monks’ world though, until suddenly at the end, everything is resolved and they all dance together. The ending feels overly neat and sentimental to me, something that is further emphasised by Szymon Brzóska’s cinematic score. Having acknowledged the enormous difficulty (impossibility even) of cross-cultural collaborations, it feels slightly disingenuous to that make out that it’s actually really easy.
These reservations aside, Larbi Cherkaoui is an absolute master of stage craft: a visual artist who uses the stage as his canvas. There are breathtaking images in Sutra that have an immediate, heart-in-the-mouth affect but will also haunt the watcher afterwards, like the work of other great theatrical auteurs like Romeo Castelluci. This is true of all of the work of his that I’ve seen though and, while Sutra might be the most accessible and digestible of those, it can at times feel overly polished, lacking the eccentricity that distinguishes some of his other work. Instead, it’s many ways a product that can be exported around the world to audiences who are interested in the Shaolin Monk brand, which is exactly what it’s been doing for the last five years. As far as products go though, Sutra’s certainly a superior one.