Review: Sutra, OzAsia Festival

Diana Carroll

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui‘s smooth fusion of modern dance, martial arts, and Zen Buddhism is a Festival delight.
Review: Sutra, OzAsia Festival

Sutra at OzAsia Festival. Photo by Hugo Glendinning.

This wonderful production from renowned Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is one of the dance highlights of the 2018 OzAsia Festival. 

Now enjoying its tenth anniversary year, Sutra has been enjoyed by audiences across the world, with performances in more than 30 countries.  And this year Cherkaoui is on stage in person, taking the key role that is often danced by his assistant choreographer Ali Thabet, alongside twenty Shaolin monks.  The one junior monk (who looks about seven but is probably older) inevitably steals the show and wins our hearts.

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The real star of the show is the design by British sculptor Antony Gormley, of Angel of the North fame.  It was Gormley who designed the astonishingly simple wooden boxes that dominate the production.  These monk-size boxes are manipulated around the stage with deceptive ease, becoming sentry boxes, giant dominoes, lotus trees, book-shelves (or monk-shelves!), and even metaphorical civilisations. Lovers of jigsaw puzzles will appreciate the many patterns and configurations that are constructed and rapidly deconstructed.

Sutra is both visually and intellectually satisfying, with its intense blend of movement and dance, symbolism and spirituality.  These Shaolin monks live and work in the place where Zen Buddhism was born some 1500 years ago, so we are compelled to look for meaning. Old versus new, East and West, conformity and individualism…the dichotomies and interpretations abound from the stage. 

But perhaps it’s best to just sit back and enjoy the outstanding creativity and physical excellence, without trying to read too much into the work.  From sequences of demanding physicality to moments of ritual and reflection, Sutra is always absorbing and never dull.  At the front of the stage, Cherkaoui and the young boy play with a miniature version of the set, moving the pieces as the boxes are to be moved around the stage. 

The atmosphere is significantly enhanced by the enigmatic music in the score composed by Szymon Brzóska for the work.  Most of the audience were probably unaware of the musicians hidden behind a scrim at the side of the stage but their impact was impressive.

Sutra is a delightful work and an exceptional example of the power and possibility of dance.

4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
Sutra

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Sadler’s Wells London

Director, Choreographer, & Dancer - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Visual Creation & Design  -  Antony Gormley
Music - Szymon Brzóska
With the monks of the Song Shan Sholin Temple

Sutra played three performances only, 2-3 November as part of the OzAsia Festival at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the SMH, the Oz, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.