The name Sutra, taken literally, is a rope or thread that holds things together. Metaphorically, it is a rule, or set of rules, also binding. In Buddhism, the term was originally given to the sermons of Buddha.
It is May 2007 and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is working in Antwerp with a small group of monks from the Shaolin Temple. Introduced to Larbi by independent producer, Hisashi Itoh, this would prove to be the beginnings of Sutra, which has gone on to play to audiences of over 165,000 in 60 cities and 28 countries worldwide.
Cut to October 2007 in London and sculptor Antony Gormley, who had already worked with Larbi and Akram Khan on zero degrees, accepted Larbi’s invitation to produce the visual design for Sutra. Life-sized wooden boxes emerged and became an integral part of the action, as could easily be observed once rehearsals moved to the Temple in March 2008. As if playing with giant Lego bricks, Larbi and the monks turned the boxes into a fortress, a giant lotus flower, beds in a dormitory, a sailboat, large-than-life dominoes….
On my first visit to the Temple, I was dropped off at the huge entrance gate. It opened slowly and we were allowed entry into what felt to me at the time to be a world that I knew little about. At the top of the path, I looked back to see the main Temple buildings silhouetted against the magnificent Songshan Mountains. If I looked right however, I could see into a basic one-room building with a corrugated iron roof, where ‘our monks’ were rehearsing with Larbi, Ali and Satoshi.
This rehearsal building had no proper floor initially. One was driven from Beijing in a truck. The layers of plywood, plastic sheeting, more ply and a rubber mat on top would probably make most dancers wince but it works. The winters are very harsh at the Temple and the rain flows off the mountains and, it seems, straight through the rehearsal room. We’re already on our second floor now.
The warrior monks in Sutra are from the Shaolin Temple on Shaoshi Mountain, near Dengfeng in Henan province. Some of ‘our’ monks leave Sutra to undertake other duties for the Abbot or continue their Buddhist studies. New monks join us and some return, which is always a happy event; one of the most notable being the two children – pupil monks – who started with the show in 2008. Just 10 and 13 years of age at the time, they have now re-joined us as young adult monks. Two of the senior monks, Huang Jiahao and Li Bo, joined Larbi’s production, TeZukA, which also toured the world throughout 2012.
The musicians bringing Szymon Brzoska’s wonderful score to life on stage have also been part of Sutra from the beginning, as has Ali Thabet, who performs with the monks in Sutra and was Larbi’s assistant during the making of the work. These artists hail from far and wide and are very much in demand; it’s fantastic that they continue to join us when we make the call for the next Sutra adventure. It’s the same with our technical crew, who have all been on Sutra from the first performance at Sadler’s Wells in May 2008.
Working on Sutra is unique. I’ve been very lucky and have worked with hugely talented and inspirational artists over the years but even so, Sutra is something special. It’s also turned into something of a large, affectionate but slightly messy family that’s spread out all over the world. I’ve had my share of sleepless nights sitting by the phone waiting for calls from China to sort out visas. Never say never, perhaps, but we’ve always got there in the end, although it was close in Abu Dhabi last year – the monks were queuing at the check-in desk in Zhengzhou airport to board their flight when the paperwork finally came through.
So finally we get the chance to show the UK what Sutra is all about. If you see a group of monks exploring your town in the next couple of months, come say Nǐ hǎo (hello). You won’t regret it.