From ‘Sutra’ to ‘Zero’

Since being back in the UK, my cultural interests have shifted more and more towards music in terms of sound and sonic art, theatre and performance, and also film…the immersive and experiential, affecting space, site, soul and mind, therefore less and less towards the contemporary and visual arts, things for the eyes, though borders are questionable right? I’m not sure if the transition from China to the UK, back to the Western domain, has anything to do with this, as the UK certainly has more freedom in terms of the performative aspects of culture…or whether my interests and likes really have changed. Probably a combination of both. Your palette certainly changes in terms of what food and drink you like right? For me bitter tastes are my world at the moment…and extreme combinations. Salted chocolate or licorice in sweet tooth terms and anything harshly peppered or chilli. Anyway…it’s brought to the fore a new landscape ripe for my investigation, in the last month seeing ‘Sutra’ by Dance Consortium at The Lowry in Manchester, and ‘Zero’ by Clod Ensemble as part of the Brighton Festival at the Brighton Dome…both productions by Sadler’s Wells.

I’d read about ‘Sutra’ prior to returning to the UK last Autumn so it was already on my radar. I was initially going to see it in Birmingham but my friend managed to get tickets for me to see it in Manchester (thanks Zoe!). I went along with the Deputy Director of Chinese Arts Centre and we were both literally blown away by this hour-long performance. If you can catch it on the last leg of it’s tour, go go GO! ‘Sutra’ is a collaboration between Europe’s dancer-choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Turner Prize-winning sculptor Antony Gormley and 17 practicing Buddhist monks, aged between 10 and 26 years, from the Shaolin Temple in China. It is a piece of dance that is at once deeply hypnotic, playful and breathtakingly athletic. The monks follow a strict Buddhist doctrine, with kung fu and tai chi martial arts forming a part of their daily ritual. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (who is a big Bruce Lee fan) spent several months at their Temple before devising his awe-inspiring piece. Antony Gormley’s stage setting consists of 21 wooden boxes which are carried or pushed around the stage by the monks, where the performance is set to a specially commissioned score by Polish composer Szymon Brzoska for piano, percussion and strings which is performed live.

‘Sutra’ presented a new perception of the body, physicality of the body, showing new ways in which to use your mind and body as a spiritual and physical power. It brings an image, shows an image of the temple, the temple of our world and of ourselves, showing the connections to and with those who doesn’t speak the same language. It represented our experiences, a symbol of our experiences, our stories individual to each of the viewers in the audience. Images and atmosphere…the idea was to bring meditative and door ritual aspect to the music. Reference Buddhism and individual versus society, duality of one person versus a group, human being in the space, inside and outside the box. So many symbols that everyone can find a place in this piece. It questioned whether there is a different mindset for dance than kungfu where in the West one works on the body on one side and spirituality on the other, whereas kungfu does both…the monks always have a simple way to give an answer as there is no frontier between spirituality and the body.

‘Sutra’ is a form of sign language…the symbol of the box is a vessel, a coffin, a boat, an enclosure, confinement, release, structure, space, home, your background, your history, your safety…it is the relationship between East and West, the rise of West versus East in terms of power…the power in numbers versus the individual…the relationship man and child…the use and power of language, translation and understanding without verbal words, only through interaction…the simplicity of the boxes, designed by Antony Gormley, is centre to the performance, a representation of intimacy through the use of box, in Gormley’s eyes it is a coffin, a background, a box to build your own background within…the structure and movement of the boxes, reform the idea of the temple…a feeling of loneliness of being alone as you negotiate a new culture, overwhelmed by new people, new surroundings, new culture, yet a feeling of closeness, a feeling of being connected to people you barely know, and therefore, the fight and struggle of being part of and a new culture and society. Something which I’ve experienced many times throughout my travels and work abroad. And I love this feeling. The Deputy Director of Chinese Arts Centre described it as the Riverdance of China, which in some respects I can see, but as a overarching concept I’m still trying to decipher.
I saw ‘Zero’ by Clod Ensemble as part of the Brighton Festival at the Brighton Dome during my 30th birthday antics. It was it’s UK premier and somewhat opposite in terms of content to ‘Sutra’ however, still questioned the realm of the spiritual, of power struggles and hope, hope for the future. ‘Zero’ mixed up dance, performance and theatre with a pinch of text-based visual arts, set to an original score played by a live band, a beautiful live blues band. It’s set in five acts in a world where ‘nothing is certain, where women can be tigers and men can be snakes. Families, marriages and friendships are laced with sibling rivalries, frustrated desires and murderous ambitions. Heavens open and lives fall apart. Here, we are all at the mercy of the stormy weather.’ At the beginning of each act, white text on a black background would state the atmosphere (the weather) of the forthcoming scene…setting the scene for the emotion ahead. It was heavily laced with these emotions, largely negative struggles of the self, of rejection, loneliness, hostility, fight, anger, agression against those close to you, the loss of hope, isolation, thoughts of mortality with a hint of murderous undertones, of the end, of death. It questioned how you see your place in the world….referenced against whom and to what demise…showing how those close to you define and affect you in greater ways than you thought, and how it can make you act in ways you never thought possible, bringing out those undercurrent emotions. Anger exists in all of us to different degrees, but how much do we show it? As does passion…passion for love, hate, life, experience, engagement, physicality. It’s making me feel something as I write this…a build up of energy inside. Again only an hour or so long like ‘Sutra’, it sparked an interesting conversation with my Mom over dinner that night. She saw the performance as incredibly depressing, super negative with no sense of hope as there was no real spirituality to it…there was no presentation of the hope of life after death in a Christian sense (my father is a Methodist minister in case you didn’t know), whereas in my rather non-religious (or questioning religion) view, I saw the whole performance as a brutal, open presentation of issues that no one usually faces in a “reality”, issues that get kept behind closed doors, issues that everyday culture tells us to keep hidden and not share. Issues such as fight and peril within personal family relationships, falling out of love with others and yourself, the isolation of life and journeys, the questioning of life and your own place in the world, and dark thoughts, the time when life just seems too hard to continue. The hope for me was there, hope and faith in mankind that they can change the way things are through their passion and fight, their want and energy…which all came through in the music, through the blues, through this additional verbal dialogue. The performance built life, built colour, built a reality which made me contently smile inside. I live for this kind of engagement, for the real-life, for the fight, that’s why I try and make things happen, and why I will always think people are the most important thing in this world.

“At least we can still sing the blues.”

Zero Clod Ensemble
zero Clod Ensemble 3
zero Clod Ensemble 2

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