I want to stay here for ever’
When choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui visited China’s Shaolin monks, it became more than a collaboration – it was a spiritual journey. Judith Mackrell introduces excerpts from his diary
The Guardian, Wednesday 23 April 2008
Monks practice their moves for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra
Monks practice their moves for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra. Photograph: Anthony Jiang Nan
The legendary skills of the Shaolin monks have for years thrilled and fascinated the innovative Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. He has been a fan of Bruce Lee from childhood. Yet, when he thought about creating a work with the monks, it was less their kung fu prowess he wanted to explore than its underlying philosophy: the inspiration the monks draw from the world around them, their capacity to identify with other living creatures and their perception of themselves as a conduit for universal energy and transformation.
There was a personal motive for his project, too. Cherkaoui’s career has recently gathered an extraordinary momentum: having separated from his mentor Alain Platel, of the Ghent dance company Les Ballets C de la B, he had begun running his own troupe, as well as touring with Akram Khan in their acclaimed duet, Zero Degrees. But success had also brought creative fatigue, and Cherkaoui needed to pause and take stock. When he started this project, he was, he says, looking for “a new way of expressing myself, a new place to be”. As these extracts from his diary show, he found it in China – in the remote mountain temple of the Shaolin monks.
Late January 2008
The basic elements of the collaboration, entitled Sutra, are in place. Sculptor Antony Gormley and Polish composer Szymon Brzóska have signed up and Cherkaoui is about to leave for rehearsals at the temple.
I made two visits to the temple last summer and it had been a big surprise. It was very beautiful, set on a mountainside, but it wasn’t exactly as I had imagined. The monks 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.
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. I am thinking about how to develop these ideas into stories. Antony has designed a set of boxes that can be used to suggest different locations – a house, a village, a graveyard, an island, a lotus flower, even the bodies of the monks themselves.