Sutra literally means “thread”. In Hinduism and Buddhism, it is the term given to a collection of aphoristic verses linked by a common theme. That makes it perfect as the title of an extraordinary work by the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Originally made in 2008, Sutra features a group of kung-fu monks from the Buddhist Shaolin Temple, an isolated figure in jacket and joggers (Ali Thabet, in Cherkaoui’s original role), and a set of wooden crates (by Antony Gormley), one for each monk. It is for the audience to discover the thread that connects them.
The piece unfurls like a series of stanzas. Szymon Brzóska’s plaintive score layers the piece with emotion, and the monks’ poise and prowess pack the dance with dynamism. At the start, Thabet and a young monk (Shi Yanzhi, who is about 10) are hunched like chess players over a miniature model of the stage; they seem like gods playing with the destinies of men. But not for long: Yanzhi scampers off, and Thabet follows him into the life-sized world on stage. There, the wooden boxes, like open coffins, are as big as a person. The monks drag them wearily on their shoulders, as if carrying the burden of their own mortality.
That’s just one of a multitude of arresting images. The boxes are clumped into a bud that blossoms into a giant lotus. They form a cityscape of tower blocks through which the monks, having changed into natty black suits, vault and leap like eager businessmen. Soon they come tumbling down like dominoes. Elsewhere, they appear as border guards patrolling a wall, huddle like penguins on a melting floe or lie stacked in a morgue. Perhaps, though, you saw a dormitory? Or bookshelves lined with bodies? The lesson of this powerful and poetic piece is that the thread, ultimately, is you.