After meeting the monks from the Shaolin temple in 2007, the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui decided to work with them on a joint project. He contracted the British artist Antony Gormley for the set design and the Polish composer Szymon Brzóska for the live music. Sutra became a journey of cultural and social exchange. By dint of translations, negotiations and lots of talking, they managed to create an artistic universe that found its way to the hearts of the public. Ten years after its Brussels première, the choreography returns to La Monnaie.
Were you already considering the idea of working with these monks when you first visited the Shaolin temple in 2007?
No, at that time I didn’t feel I had anything to offer them, anything to contribute. Apart from my stress, perhaps!… But seriously, I was just pleased to be invited. And underlying it all were my childhood memories of Bruce Lee and his kung fu. Once I was there, I met people (so the monks) who wanted to take their art in a new direction, find a way of adding another dimension to their customary life, but without giving it up.
And so gradually the idea of making a production began to crystallize …
Precisely. I talked to Antony Gormley and the idea of placing wooden boxes on the stage started to take shape. We then spent several weeks trying to get the right proportions and measurements. That is always the pleasantest aspect of creating a new work. Once the first box was finished, I started playing around with it, gliding into it, tilting it and making it fall over…
Antony sees the monks first and foremost as bodies he can work with. The boxes and wooden elements are their partners. In the end, in a way it all comes down to mathematics: we had to work out which combinations are possible on stage. It took many attempts. In this specific case language became almost irrelevant. Later on, two monks came to Antwerp and we travelled to China for the second time. We spent two months at the temple in Henan preparing.
While working with these Buddhist monks, who spend most of their time meditating and practising martial arts, did you rule out certain things?
No, but it was trial and error. I didn’t travel there with a ‘ready-made’ project or anything definite in mind. You have to tread carefully in that context. For me the most crucial thing was listening to the monks rather than just allowing what I wanted to do as a choreographer to dictate what I did.
Clearly you observed their daily life closely.
I remember walking in the mountain one day and coming across a monk who was practising alone with his sabre. I was struck by the beauty of his movements. Later on, I asked him if he’d like to come to the rehearsals. It was only a suggestion on my part, certainly not an obligation. Eventually he appeared with his sabre, though he is not a warrior. In this production you also see animal-like stances and movements, for example monkeys and a ‘scorpion man’. The monks have a very direct connection with the animal world. This also tied in with the ideas I was able to develop in another choreography: Myth.
You didn’t turn these monks into dancers. Was that intentional?
Yes, because they aren’t dancers. Had I had three more months of rehearsals, I would have been able to achieve more choreographic body movements, but that’s not what I was aiming for in Sutra. Together with Ali Ben Lofti Thabet, my assistant who has a circus background, I did introduce a form of acrobatics. And with Damien Jalet, the choreographer and dancer who went with me to China, I added playful touches, touches of humour.
What do you remember most about your stay in the temple?
First of all, it is important to say that it is not all beauty there. It is cold and austere. The mountain is high, which means that every action - even breathing - requires effort. So I could feel my body changing, which is important. Then that special relationship of trust which came through working with the monks of the Shaolin temple helped me to be understood. It is very refreshing when people look at you as you are, not for what you have done in the past or for what you are supposed to represent in the art world. It creates a strong bond. The different relationship with time also helped me to distance myself. In a sense, in China I regained my certitude, the basis and the engine of my activity as an artist and choreographer.
Recorded by Philippe Noisette (for the MMM5, September 2008)