What does happen when East meets West, really? Culture-crossing Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, one of Europe’s most highly-courted young choreographers, gives his most ambitious two cents to date with Sutra, a 70-minute work that brings to the stage 17 high-flying warrior monks from China’s famed Shaolin Temple. Montreal’s Danse Danse gave its North American premiere at Théâtre de Maisonneuve on Wednesday.
Cherkaoui spent two months studying at the mythic Shaolin Monastery in the mountains of China’s Henan Province to create 2008’s Sutra. Drawing its title from the Sanskrit word meaning thread, or line that holds things together, Sutra’s martial arts tableau revolves around the permutations of a moveable set designed by British sculptor Antony Gormley: 21 human-size, wooden boxes.
Playing a kind of lost soothsayer character dressed in baggy shades of grey, Cherkaoui wanders into a mutating maze-world inhabited by the 17 Shaolin monks. One of them, a cheeky, monkeying 12-year-old, seems to be his guide and only friend. Several times, the pair tinker with miniature blocks and finger-puppet at each other, creating microcosms of (or perhaps wormholes to) what will soon transpire on stage. Their manipulations, however, are often met by vociferous ambush by the group.
Essentially what follows is a fine display of Shaolin techniques, made episodic by the set’s shifting landscapes. The performers wield staffs, spears and swords, perform virtuosic solos, change costumes and go (inexplicably) to battle. Meanwhile, propped up, the boxes form a bustling cityscape, then a temple corridor; stacked, they are a mausoleum, or a Japanese capsule hotel. A mountain rises up, a lotus flower blooms, coffins and boats are dragged. But, while the possibilities of the giant Janga blocks are proven endless, there is not enough choreographic statement to render these worlds lucid, or magical.
Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Cherkaoui emerged from Belgium’s avant-garde and first garnered acclaim for his work, starting in 2000, with the vanguard dance-theatre collective Ballet C. de la B. His contemporary works are known for their intricate cross-cultural tapestries and hybrid movement styles marked by fearless physicality. For a dance-maker like Cherkaoui, Shaolin kung fu should be choreographic gold.
The Temple’s stylistic trademark is its swooping grace, percussive attack, unpredictable shifts in weight and direction, codified incarnations of nature and nature’s beasts. So unfortunate it is then that Cherkaoui does not do much to reveal its inherent virtues as dance, using a choreographer’s eye for texture, phrasing, theatrical juxtaposition. What ends up stealing scenes, albeit deservedly so, are the acrobatics: flying kicks, wheeling backflips and miraculous tumbles. Oh, and the Janga does have its big dominoes moment too.
In the end, Sutra lacks the very thread suggested by its title. It remains an appealing, entertaining work, as the physical prowess of the 17 young Buddhist monks speaks for itself. The boxes have their own cool moves too, and as a performer, Cherkaoui is singular and wholly captivating (there may be no fuller explication of the dimensions of a coffin than when he calmly slinks and slithers against its inside). But these elements remain surprisingly discrete. East did meet West, but they mostly just sat politely and enjoyed each other’s company.
Sutra features an original score by Polish composer Szymon Brzoska, performed live. The show runs until Sunday, November 8 at Théâtre de Maisonneuve, Place des Arts. For tickets: laplacedesarts.com or 514-842-2112.