I am not familiar with all of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui‘s work although I have bounced around various YouTube clips of his work. He is a Belgian choreographer who has always managed to interest me to a certain extent but for some reason I remain somewhat suspicious of him. I have no idea why. I think it has something to do with his trademark flexibility and his occasional tendency towards contortionist-type choreography. Flexibility is something I do not trust; it is bestowed upon humans randomly and manages to fascinate and seduce almost everyone (myself included) and for this reason I do not trust it at all; it is a trick. A very cool and effective trick, but still. In Sutra, Cherkaoui lets the audience know that he has received the Gift of Flexible Joints and this gesture I find vaguely annoying or at least tiring. I don’t think this is a valid reason to be suspicious of said choreographer and dancer, at all. But there it is, anyway.
Sutra, which was made in 2008, is beautiful, absorbing and so intelligently designed and choreographed. Performing with monks of the Shaolin Monastery, I think that Cherkaoui may have managed to make a piece of art that might not be so intensely problematic regarding the whole ‘East Meets West’ idea. (This being said, I must add that when watching work like this, work that bravely tries to connect across cultural divides and etcetera, I think you have to settle down and accept that you are watching a piece that ultimately springs from the idea of ‘East Meets West’s Idea of East’. And that’s ok, I think. Demanding random conceptions of ‘authenticity’ is a dangerous game to play whenever you step outside your own cultural frame).
Cherkaoui had met the Shaolin monks in 2007 and stayed with them for a while in the Shaolin Monastery in China. The set design was done by the sculptor Antony Gormley and it is a pleasure and a treat to watch such a fluid environment and set design come to life throughout the piece and shift from section to section, moving with the dancers. The coffin-like boxes seem to perform just as much as the Shaolin monks do and are so much more than a ‘prop’. They are a real, tangible and central part of the piece and it is quite simply fun to watch what they will become next, a maze, a wall, a boat, a flower, a tower. And of course the movement, discipline and general energy from the young Shaolin monks is entirely absorbing and wonderful to witness. The structure of the piece, the movement vocabulary, the humour – all of these things I loved.
The thing that bothered me a little, was Cherkaoui’s relationship to the rest of his cast. Always somewhat separated, with the youngest monk acting as a strange sort of cute, miniature mediator between him and the rest of the cast – something in me didn’t sit right with that. I didn’t particularly enjoy his tendency to ‘play god’ by moving the smaller boxes around whilst the monks drag the huge boxes to replicate the model he had created off to the side. Most of the time, the piece felt like a reflective, pondering solo of Cherkaoui while young men exude a lot of performative energy around him. However sometimes Cherkaoui seems over-powered and almost vulnerable against this group of incredible young men. The balance between the individual and the group at times did not feel right or satisfying. But the power dynamics of their relationship was certainly not simple. Which made it interesting. I was not always certain if Cherkaoui was in a sense ‘controlling’ the monks or imitating them.
By the end, Cherkaoui joins the monks in a sequence and I thoroughly enjoyed that, it seemed to salvage his somewhat aloof and observant role. Perhaps my discomfort with his removed gaze was related to a similar discomfort I often feel when being the ‘watcher’ myself. I never know how much power I have when I’m watching someone. Sometimes I am invisible and what I’m watching would exist if I weren’t there, sometimes what I am watching exists just for me to watch. It’s interesting and confusing thinking about what makes the experience as an audience one or the other (or both) (or neither).
A small digression and/or concluding anecdote that is only loosely related:
Every afternoon I look after a 9 year old boy with autism. Once we get the reading and writing exercises finished, it is time to ‘play’. Playing usually involves sword fighting and kung fu, I get stabbed several times and die dramatically. I have to come to life again, of course, so he can kill me again. I am killed and resurrected at least twelve times in one afternoon of play (Also, to die and then come alive is a most refreshing and energizing exercise – you should try it).
He is always very specific about how I get stabbed, either between my arm and stomach so if I’m standing in profile it looks like the sword has gone straight through me. Or through the sleeve of my shirt so it looks like the sword is under my skin. Growing up with sisters in a world where ballet was fun, I was at first a little concerned about the amounts of stabbing and yelling and dying with my usual mantra of violence begets violence etc. But at one point, it got a little rough and I did get a bit hurt, he immediately backed down and the fun had died. Real hurt and real fighting wasn’t fun. What is so magical about playing at fighting? About yelling and punching the air and high kicks and screams of rage?
Watching this piece made me think of my afternoons of yelling and sword-fighting and dying and living and kicking and raging and playing. It’s a wonderful thing to do. This piece is a wonderful thing to watch.
Oh yes, you can watch the full-length version here at UbuWeb! http://ubuweb.com/dance/cherkaoui_sutra.html