What would it look like if the New York City ballet’s corps of ballerinas were replaced by 20 kung fu Buddhist monks? Sutra, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and with music by Szymon Brzóska, is as close an answer as you’re likely to get. The hourlong performance melds contemporary dance with the fighting techniques of China’s famous Shaolin martial arts.

Onstage, Cherkaoui, 42, joins the Chan Buddhist monks as well as 21 human-size boxes. These boxes, conceptualized by the British sculptor Antony Gormley, are as much a part of the choreography as the dancers themselves. Dragged around, stacked, put together like a puzzle and broken apart again—these simple props create complex worlds. Frequently the performers hide within them before flying out with flips, kicks, and spins.

Sutra premiered a decade ago but remains fresh. In 2007, Cherkaoui began the process of working with the monks, who hail from the original Shaolin Monastery in eastern China. Developed during the Sui and Tang dynasties (581– 618 CE and 618–907 CE) to protect the monastery from attack, the unique style of martial arts is now considered a tool for physical and mental cultivation.

At the time of their first meeting with Cherkaoui, the temple’s leaders had been looking for a way to modernize the tradition while still honoring its spiritual roots. Sutra was their answer.

Emma Varvaloucas, Executive Editor

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the Shaolin monks onstage at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. Photograph by Andree Lanthier
Photograph by Andree Lanthier
Photograph by Andree Lanthier

Related: Amituofo: Shi Yan Ming

Leo Mason Sports Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

The temple leaders had been looking for a way to modernize the tradition while still honoring its spiritual roots. Sutra was their answer.

A still from Sutra performed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. The show premiered in 2008 and recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Temple
Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

Liberate this article!

You’ve read all three of your free articles for the month. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.