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OzAsia review: Sutra

Festivals

Sutra’s stylish mix of kung fu, tai chi and contemporary dance, is a striking paean to the power of movement infused with a deep-seated humanity.

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This iconic masterpiece from Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has been travelling the globe for 10 years now, fuelled by a succession of young monks from the Shaolin temple in China and, on this occasion, Cherkaoui himself on stage.

The lustre has not worn thin. If anything it’s shinier, polished into a perfect hour of tightly synchronised performance that tells the story of its own creation alongside a bigger story about art’s ability to break down barriers.

It begins quietly with Cherkaoui and a minuscule child-monk cross-legged on top of a steel box whose open side is face down on the stage. Cherkaoui is attempting to communicate with the monk, arranging a collection of tiny wooden boxes between them. In the background, larger versions of the wooden boxes are laid out with Shaolin monks hidden inside.

The body-sized boxes are the genius work of British sculptor Antony Gormley. They’re a crucial element of the performance, being flipped over, upended, dragged, carried, and at one stage lined up with the monks inside, then knocked over, domino-style. They serve as ship, forest, city, border wall and symbolise the cultural boxes we are all trapped inside.

Their manipulation is interspersed with incredible displays of kung fu flying kicks, power punches and back flips, neatly balanced with the simple grace and calm of tai chi routines. There’s also a great deal of humour, mostly when Cherkaoui attempts to mimic the actions of the monks or flops around clownishly inside his own box.

Each scene is overlaid with elegant music from Szymon Brzóska that sets emotional tone and turns the kung fu into pure dance.

The only Westerner in the performance, Cherkaoui is initially an observer, distanced from the monks’ ritualistic practice. However, thanks to the young child-monk (a sort of physical manifestation of the creative spirit) he gradually becomes more involved in their activities, upending his steel box to stand beside theirs and manipulating his body until it fits inside the new shape.

In one particularly powerful scene, the monks use their wooden boxes to form a huge wall which Cherkaoui desperately knocks on but is unable to break through until the child-monk finds a crack and makes an opening. Finally, Cherkaoui is absorbed into the rhythmic, tidal motion of the monks’ routine, creating an insightful statement about the possibilities of harmony through cultural exchange.

This incredible, transformative work is a perfect reminder of what OzAsia brings to Australia: artistic excellence, cross-cultural collaboration and a new understanding of our diverse and endlessly fascinating world.

Sutra’s final performances on November 3 at the Dunstan Playhouse. Read more InDaily and CityMag OzAsia Festival stories and reviews here.

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