Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui Builds Martial Calm; Sasha Waltz Takes a Society Apart

Belgians and Germans and dance

The Belgian Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has an unusually questing mind. He has, for instance, drawn inspiration for a dance from a workshop for mentally disabled actors and another (Orbo Novo for New York’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet) from Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, a neuroanatomist’s recollection of her stroke. He has collaborated on duets with British postmodernist Akram Khan and with flamenco dancer Maria Pagés.

Making a dance involving 17 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China’s Henan Province is perhaps Cherkaoui’s boldest project to date. Sutrastems from his visit to the temple in 2007, and it has been touring on and off since he made it two years ago. The monks who ignite the Rose Hall stage, as part of Lincoln Center’s ongoing—and exciting—White Light Festival, are now old pros. But weren’t they always in some sense? That is, their discipline has always included martial arts, keeping the body primed the way athletes and dancers do—even though the necessary bouts of defensive warfare they once used to engage in haven’t occurred for centuries.

The monks of the Shaolin Temple in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra
Julieta Cervantes
The monks of the Shaolin Temple in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra
Sasha Waltz’s Gezeiten
Yi-Chun Wu
Sasha Waltz’s Gezeiten

Details

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Sutra
Rose Theater
November 2 through 4

Sasha Waltz & Guests: Gezeiten BAM
Howard Gilman Opera House
November 3 through 6

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It’s startling to think about monks devoted to Buddhism’s credo of nonviolence practicing martial art maneuvers designed to, say, disjoint your opponent’s body. But a daily regimen of kung fu and tai chi can also discipline and quicken the spirit and, perhaps, cultivate the single-mindedness and calm appropriate for attaining religious clarity. Too, maneuvers that involve whipping poles and swords around and beating the hell out of the air bare-handed are good ways of getting rid of anger and anxiety.

Cherkaoui and his collaborators have created a striking ambiance. Antony Gormley’s visual design consists of plywood boxes (one for each monk) roughly the size of coffins, with one long side open. The musicians playing Szymon Bróska’s score for two violins, cello, piano, and percussion sit on a platform at the back of the stage behind a scrim and. The music is wonderful—sometimes a single lyrical voice calls out, sometimes the five instruments scrimmage richly, Sometimes they fall silent, and we listen to the sound of the boxes falling or being dragged.

At the outset, Cherkaoui establishes a playful tone. He and the single child monk (a boy about 10 years old) sit on a downstage platform arranging small models of the boxes, as if playing chess. Initially, it seems as if their arrangements dictate what the monks do with the larger objects, but before long, the two (or Cherkaoui alone) are having trouble keeping up with the monks’ construction jobs. The boy himself is a charmer. He’s not only an expert at back flips; sometimes, crouching, he makes odd little curling gestures of his hands around his head that suggest both the monkey god of India (where Shaolin monks originally came from) and the monkey king of Chinese opera. He and Cherkaoui—a fascinated onlooker who has a yen to join in—often try to outwit each other.

The adult monks—first in loose-fitting gray shirts and pantaloons held in at the ankles and calves with black lacing, later bare-chested in slim black pants—do everything you hope they’ll do. They fly through the air, twisting and somersaulting. They vault on and off the boxes. They whirl weapons around at a dizzying pace. But the boxes also serve as building materials with which to form and demolish cities, walls, towers, piles of dominoes, and obstacles courses. Each man’s box can become his coffin, his burrow, his closet, his burden to haul, and more. It may confine him or shelter him. At one point, the monks build stacks of bunks and climb into them, as if on a troop ship after lights out. Cherkaoui, who enters with his own gray box, gets one foot stuck in it. He performs the old vaudeville routine of stepping inside it and simulating walking downstairs by bending his knees deeper and deeper.

It’s amazing how quickly the performers disappear into the warrens of boxes and equally startling how and where they start popping out again. Sometimes complex plans are needed. A group of monks is suddenly marooned on a box standing on end. The boy pushes another box, open side up, near them, and, one by one, they jump into this lifeboat so precisely that they all fit with not a jot of space left.

In spite of the jokes, this game—these labors—conceived with imaginative theatricality becomes a kind of analogue to the shifting terrain of living and the strategies one develops for coping with change. A vision not incompatible with these Buddhist monks’ acceptance of life and their skill at surviving threats to it.


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The last time I saw Sasha Waltz’s Berlin-based company, it was 2002 at BAM, and her Körper seemed to be about taking the human body apart and subjecting it to pressures both physical and mental. Her Gezeiten (Tides) is about an entire community falling apart, its inhabitants first coping, then—maddened—engaging in bizarre actions like patients in a surreal Bedlam. On opening night, a while before Gezeiten had run its intermissionless hour-and-fifty-minutes, some people had left and I was trying to breath deeply and will it to end,

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