By Judith Mackrell
Between 2007 and 2008 Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui spent several months at chilly high altitude in the Henan province in central China. He’d gone there to live and work with the monks from the Shaolin temple, absorbing the ancient traditions of their martial arts discipline kung fu, and hoping to collaborate with them on a new piece of dance theatre.
Cherkaoui had fallen in love with kung fu when he was a child, awed by the high- flying kicks, shadowboxing and somersaults that had made blockbusters of the movies of Bruce Lee. But as an adult his interest shifted more towards the philosophy underpinning the form – the idea that all living creatures are part of a universal energy and that the movements of kung fu are a means of channeling that force. Somehow in his new work Cherkaoui wanted to combine the exhilarating beauty of kung fu and the resonance of its spiritual culture.
The Belgian choreographer was also looking for a new direction in his own choreography. Back in 2007 he’d just emerged from a frantic phase of his career, launching his own company after leaving the Brussels theatre collective Les Ballets C de la B; and touring the world with the British choreographer Akram Khan in their acclaimed duet, Zero Degrees. In a short space of time Cherkaoui had gone from small scale talent to global name and the speed of that journey had been exhausting. Going on retreat to the Shaolin monks was partly to give himself time out, but also, as he said, to look for “a new way of expressing myself, a new place to be”.
In fact he created one of the great successes of his career. With designs by the artist Antony Gormley and music by the Polish composer Szymon Brzóska, Sutra has travelled the world since its 2008 premiere. This months as it embarks on its first UK tour I talked to Cherkaoui by phone about a work that is still close to his heart.
Back in 2007, when you first visited the Shaolin temple, what were your immediate impressions?
It wasn’t exactly as I had imagined. A lot of the monks were young, about 21 or 22 , and they were talking on mobile phones, they were allowed pop music and an internet connection was close by. They told me this was natural, as the Shaolins have always been on top of new technology. Back when paper was first invented, they adopted it very quickly. This openness was good for me because it meant the monks were receptive to my ideas.
But even with these outside elements the first thing I noticed was the calmness and discipline at the temple. It’s very beautiful, set on a mountainside, and when I was with the monks I always got the sense that they were exactly where they were supposed to be. There was an incredible quality of serenity
Was it difficult for you to adapt to the physical discipline of the monks’ life?
In the winter it was too cold for me, the monks don’t have heating. I’m not as hardy as them so I spent the nights in a hotel room, further down the mountain. And I wore a hat and gloves while I was rehearsing. But otherwise I felt very at home. I’ve been a vegetarian for over 20 years, I don’t drink or smoke, so the simplicity of their life was very good for me. The monks get up at six for a warm-up jog, and I did a yoga session in my hotel room from about 7.30 before going up to the temple.
How did you relate to the religious discipline?
It was what I was interested in. I’ve always been someone who’s looked for serenity inside myself, even though it’s not a quality that’s useful in this hectic world. In the temple I had the space and time to deepen that aspect of my personality. I really flourished
How did you set about creating Sutra with the monks?
At our first meetings, we spoke about their culture, how their kung fu discipline connects with the outside world, and the way they relate spiritually to animals and the environment. Then I introduced them to the idea of working with Antony ’s design.
Antony Gormley’s design seems to have been a miraculous part of that process.
Yes he had the idea of making the set of Sutra a number of large, wooden boxes. They were very abstract in themselves but they could be arranged in different constellations so that they represented different things, like a forest, a boat, a graveyard, even the monks themselves. When I first showed them the boxes and explained what I wanted they were very eager. They organised themselves immediately to build up the sets. It was like when my brother and I used to play with Lego.
When I was thinking how to develop these boxes into images and stories the monks were very quick to pick up on the idea. The youngest of them, Shi Yandong who we call Dong Dong, was just 11 and he was wonderful. Because he had the imagination of a child, he didn’t need to ask why we did something, he just did it. He had an innocence about him but he was very smart, very playful and inventive. Often I took my lead from him, but all the stories came out of improvisation. When the monks were all sitting in one box it suddenly felt like something to do with a boat, and crossing the ocean. Another image, the lotus flower, was a magical accident. We put the boxes in a particular constellation, in circles and allowed them to fall back into a spiral. Dong Dong sat in the top in the middle and it was immediately Buddha sitting on a lotus flower.
You also perform in Sutra, which in some ways seems to be about your own journey into the Shaolin culture, and kung fu. How difficult was it for you to learn to pick up the monks’ movement style?
At the beginning I didn’t try. I wasn’t there to become a monk or a martial artist, exactly, but to develop a relationship with the Shaolins. But I absorbed a lot of kung fu just by osmosis. I analyse movement all the time, it’s what I do. If I can understand how people move I understand how they are and after a few weeks of watching and directing the monks, I started trying to do some of their moves myself.
Everything they do is very beautiful, although some of it could actually break your arm. One spiralling move was lovely in thin air, but when I did it with one of the monks, it pulled me almost on to the floor. It was quite hard for the monks to teach me their movements, because they were young and not experienced. But I was surprised by how familiar certain moves felt to me. There was a flipping of the shoulders they did, like a dolphin, that I’ve used in my own choreography. Some jumps looked more like jazz to me than kung fu.
How much European movement did the monks absorb from you?
They were very interested. Before they came into the temple most of them had seen very different kinds of dance around them in China. Some of the younger, more physical monks were very interested in hip hop and street dance Some of the more naturally elegant monks were interested in classical ballet. But contemporary dance was very new to them, and they found that more difficult to learn, because it was less defined.
Did you and the monks always agree on how the work should develop?
They wanted everything to go faster. But they were always very curious about what I was doing, and respectful of it.
Once Sutra was made, and on the road how well did the monks adapt to the life of the touring dance company?
Before Sutra was premiered in London I talked with them about what it would be like. They weren’t exactly excited; they live too much from day to day. But they wanted to see Big Ben and all the tourist sites. They wanted to see how other people live.
What they didn’t care about were the living conditions. They said they only needed need humble rooms and when I discussed with them what kind of space they would need for warming up and rehearsing, they laughed and said they could just go for a run in one of the parks.
As we’ve toured to other places one of the great pleasures for me has been seeing the monks deepening their experience of the outside world. It’s been wonderful to show them New York, Spain, New Zealand, places like these. Sometimes I was scared that the travel might contaminate them in a negative way but it’s part of their training to deal with the world. As Buddhists it’s important for them to gain more knowledge of humanity. And the older monks have been very happy, knowing that the younger ones were bringing their insights back to the temple.
Has Sutra changed in any way over the last five years?
It’s not the same team performing it. Some of the monks have left the temple, some have just stopped performing. Dong Dong is still in the piece but he’s one of the older ones, he’s taller than me now! He knows Sutra inside out.
The work has got shorter and sharper, as the new monks have come in and learned the material. Perhaps it has lost something, because the new team haven’t gone through the process of creating it, but they are still very curious about the movement and they treat it very seriously. They like to be very clear about it.
Since Sutra you’ve made many other works, and been involved in many other projects – including choreographing for Joe Wright’s 2012 film of Anna Karenina. How did that come about?
Joe knew from the start that he wanted to make the film something like a ballet, because of the novel’s Russian origins. He came to me because his wife [Anoushka Shankar] had taken him to Faun [Cherkaoui’s 2009 re-creation of the Nijinsky ballet L’Apres midi d’un Faune] and he liked its sensuality and theatricality
What was your response to the project?
I felt less scared of the idea of doing a film when Joe made the decision to shoot Anna Karenina as though it was in the theatre, as a series of scenes. It began to remind me of one of my own pieces and it became a world of make believe that I could relate to.
At first I had been unsure of what I could do for the ballroom scenes in the film. I told Joe there were people who knew much more than I did about 19th century dances like the waltz and mazurka. But he said he wanted a contemporary approach, the freedom of a new creation. I used ten dances from my company Eastman to experiment. In most ballroom scenes you see the waltz as all spinning and circles, but there is usually something quite static too, especially in the arms, which are fixed in one position. Arms are my thing, and I wanted to give them the same flow as the rest of the body.
What other projects are you involved in now?
I have a new work PUZ/ZLE which is coming to London. It’s a very physical piece, about man’s changing relationship with rocks and stones. I’m also working on a tango piece with some dancers from Buenos Aires. But at the moment I’m very happy to be spending time with Sutra again.
It’s always such a pleasure performing with the monks, they have such a straightforward approach to being on stage. They don’t care about the reviews we get, which I envy. If I read something about myself I believe it, however disastrous it can be for the image I have of myself. But the monks don’t relate their sense of self to the words of others.
What they react to is the audience and the applause. They love it and they are very spontaneous. In New York one critic complained that I’d allowed Sutra to become too show-bizzy at the end, because the monks all started doing their special kung fu tricks while the audience applauded. I found that funny because that was completely the monks’ choice. By that point in the work I don’t have any control over them, they’re just doing what comes naturally.
For me their attitude is lovely. After performing for 20 years I had stopped enjoying the audience and the applause in that simple way, and they’ve given that back to me. If I wasn’t so busy with other projects I’d like to perform Sutra even more. It’s been such a pleasure. I would never have guessed that this experiment we did in 2008 would go on to have such a life.