Skip to main content

Beyond Ballet

A spectacular ballet, Sutra puts Belgian-Morroccan Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui into the spotlight as a choreographer that embraces different cultures.

Sutra Ballet (c) Andre Lanthier

There aren’t many contemporary choreographers that commit to living with Shaolin monks in a Chinese temple for a year. Such a journey at the heart of Zen Buddhism and martial arts led Belgian-Morroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to create one of his most important ballets to date: Sutra (first premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 2008). It embodies, on stage, a transcendental experience Cherkaoui had, dancing with the monks.

Sutra Ballet (c) Hugo Glendinning

More than a decade later, timeless Sutra comes back center stage in Geneva at the BFM (Bâtiment des Forces Motrices) as part of Geneva’s Grand Théâtre’s programming. Recently appointed director of the Geneva Ballet, Cherkaoui feels like the city is a wonderful cosmopolitan hub to mix culture and approaches. And Sutra is very much that: a ballet that bridges the gap between oriental and Western cultures. With a contemporary approach to stage set, Cherkaoui asked British sculptor Antony Gormley to design something unique: the multi-award artist imagined a movable set of 21 wooden boxes on which 19 monks perform. Or maybe even fly?

Sutra Ballet (c) Hugo Glendinning

The Buddhist monks of the Shaolin Temple in China are at the root of age-old legends that attribute them the ability to fly as they perform extraordinary feats of martial arts. Blending faith, spirituality and athleticism, the ballet is not only breathtaking – with daring leaps and fast-moving sequences – but graphically thrilling: interacting with the wooden boxes as if they were extra performers, the monks increasingly unveil their agility as a group and as individual dancers to create sculptures within sculptures. In perfect harmony, the music, especially composed by Polish Szymon Brzóska, is also performed live.

Sutra Ballet (c) Andree Lanthier

“I was inspired by the monks’ daily practice of meditating to quieten the mind and training in martial arts to quieten the body. By combining these two contrasting disciplines, they attain a unique balance between spiritual stillness and frenetic energy which, as performers, gives them an extraordinary degree of physical presence”, the choreographer explains. And as the ballet settles, one understands that Sutra is “based on kung fu movement sequences which, practiced in unison, are akin to a form of physical meditation. Then come demonstrations of individual mastery in fighting bare-fisted or with a staff, which includes leaping up a staff and miraculously balancing on the shaft to the consternation of one's opponent”, Cherkaoui adds.

Bringing ancient mastery center stage, Cherkaoui proves to the audience, once again, how humbled the viewer should be when faced with a Shaolin army of born-performers.

On show at the BFM, Geneva, from February 16th to 19th