Tales from touring Sutra

English classes on tour

News & Features

Leila Ransley, Sutra Wardrobe Supervisor

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If someone had said to me a few years ago that I would get a job that would take me to over 25 countries and 50 odd cities, I would have said they were having a laugh. But this is exactly what has happened. In 2008 I was offered three days’ work to source suits for a show Sadler’s Wells was producing. At this time I knew very little about the production, just that it was being created by two tours de force of their respective fields, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Antony Gormley, and that the performers were warrior monks from the Shaolin Temple in China. An unlikely coming together it seemed to me but, hey, I was getting work out of it. The three days’ work expanded into a European tour that year and five years later the show has performed across the world in such diverse venues as lovely old theatres, lovely new theatres, opera houses, Roman ruins, a theatre where the dressing rooms are nuclear bunkers, Sydney Opera House, a school playground and so the list goes on.

I have worked with dancers for many years and have become used to the collective discipline and thoughtful procedure of a dancer’s working day; so it seemed reasonable to expect much the same from the monks. Not quite. I was unprepared for the unbridled energy and sheer force of nature coming from twenty excited young men bursting with energy and enthusiasm. The only time I have seen the monks hushed and still was when we were welcomed to the New Zealand Festival by a group of men and women who performed a Haka. For me, it was probably the most exhilarating experience we have encountered so far.

The absence of a common language has never been a real problem; however, Alies Sluiter, one of our violinists, decided to offer English lessons to interested monks and invited me to help her. The lessons usually happen after breakfast in hotel dining rooms; perhaps four or five monks would attend, always with the child monks who took on English as well as their own Chinese school work. Sometimes additional impromptu classes would happen, as happened when we were in Belgrade. The hotel was a sprawling 1970s monolith with a spacious reception which, on this occasion, lent itself to an unusual lesson format. The subject of the day was directions, both giving and responding to left, right, straight on etc. A caller directed four people to walk forward, turn left, turn right, and so on. This seemed simple enough until it all went a bit wrong and people started crashing into each other and wound up on the floor in convulsions of laughter.

The monks mostly wear traditional robes but not exclusively. Like most young men they have an interest in clothes and often several of them will each buy the same garment. Two monks had bought black and white check shirts and wore them on one of our sightseeing trips. Shortly after we arrived, a young American man ran up and excitedly stated that he too had a black and white shirt and if he put it on could he have his picture taken with them? He put his shirt on, had his picture taken and hung out with us for the rest of the day. There are countless anecdotes and examples of how working on Sutra is consistently rewarding… and entertaining! I look forward to more of it.