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. Sutra stems 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.
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.
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,
Waltz has said that the piece’s three sections move from abstraction to realism to surrealism, and that seems true. The entire action takes place in a deserted building, maybe a school or club, with paint-blotched walls, a resonantly mic’d wooden floor, three different kinds of doors, the remnants of pipes and electrical equipment, a cot, buckets, chairs, a table (design by Thomas Schenk and Waltz). Some unspecified disaster is happening outside. In the first scene, the 16 performers, wearing nondescript clothes (costumes by Beate Borrmann), arrive gradually, come and go—always making you aware that what is outside this building is dangerous. Jonathan Bepler’s ominous sound score (larded with bits of Bach) and Martin Hauk’s lighting maintain the sense of threat.
During the first part, Waltz uses choreography to suggest the tasks of maintaining equilibrium and forming alliances. The section is rich with amazing, beautifully designed counterbalances. In twos and threes, the 16 powerful dancers hook onto one another in unusual ways. You may see one bent over, another nestling beneath, and a third lying across them, board-stiff. Once two men interlock, balanced on only one of them’s right foot. A rhythm develops; a performer enters just in time to relieve a colleague or complete a design.
But gradually the pace accelerates, and difficulties arise. A man crashes to the floor, the lights get brighter, the sound score noisier. One man (Matija Ferlin) climbs onto the platform above one of the doors and becomes a leader. Virgis Podziunis collapses, and the crowd reacts as if he has some disease. “Don’t touch him,” Ferlin yells; women wash him. People climb on the chairs, the tables. They daren’t leave; if they open one door, smoke billows in. Liza Alpizar Aguilar leaves and returns, sobbing uncontrollably. They develop strategies for survival, dole out mush, drink water they’ve acquired by attaching a long pipe to one of those high on the wall. Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola plays a tiny keyboard and some join him in wanly discordant singing. Finally, smoke and flames pour in, and an electric circuit blows out, sparking. You hear buildings toppling. The stage goes black.
After that, you may expect. . .what? At first, it seems that Waltz is going to provide a quiet, desperate, getting-on-with-life denouement to this griping scene. The sun seems to be shining outside. All is quiet. The people enter numbly. But this is the surreal part—meaning, I guess, that disaster has unhinged everyone. Aguilar has been carried to the cot and covered up. Podziunis (I think it’s he), pulls up a floorboard, lays it across the cot’s headboard and footboard, and curls up on it, balanced above her. Pointless or deranged tasks proliferate. A man nails his shoes to the wall, and later, another man tries to help a woman put her feet into them. Xuan Shi attempts to build a tower of bricks retrieved from under the floor. People squabble over trivia, fight, and pull the floor apart, board by board. They start piling stuff on the cot, as if ready to wheel it away, but when Sasa Queliz parks on it and decides she owns the whole thing, the others start stealing the items out from under her.
After a while, I wonder, charitably, whether Waltz feels that this excessively bizarre behavior has to go one for a long time so you can feel how fatally this society has been damaged. But, less charitable now, I think that the act of dreaming up weird bits for everyone has gotten out of control. Of course, when the lights finally go out, we applaud the tremendously valiant and skillful performers and stagger for the door, hoping that—especially on this deep, dark post-election night—the subways will be running and the stars will still be shining for us.