Breaking Free – Sutra Review

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Since this was my first experience of seeing a contemporary dance production, I was unsure of how I would respond to it, and as such, I’m quite surprised that I came away with some strong impressions and interpretations, which I’ll put down to the strength of the performance rather than any great insight on my own part.

If there’s one thing that really stuck out to me about Sutra that was completely unexpected, it was its playful, childlike aspect. This quality, I felt, not only helped elucidate what seemed to me to be the production’s big themes (e.g. teaching and learning, the value of simplicity, and a notion that the potential of mind and body goes beyond their physical reality), but also allowed for a greater accessibility: even when left bemused and bewildered by the cryptic and symbolic nature of the action, no one in the audience could fail to be captivated by the incredible energy and enthusiasm of the child performer – the “little monk”.

Right from the beginning, there is a focus on learning and play and the connection between the two, as performer and assistant choreographer, Ali Thabet, talks with the boy at a table laid out with little boxes, which could as easily be toys or game counters as educative tools. Initially the boy seems to be receiving a lesson from Thabet – a lesson he is clearly enjoying – and there’s a sense that he is learning through play, as simple games help to open up his imagination and engage his interest. This idea will later become important, for just as the rules of gameplay can allow for greater imaginative freedom and careful thinking, so too the rigid discipline of Buddhist monastic training can help to free the mind and open up new possibilities.

This sense of childishness and fun continues in the use of the large boxes, which by means of both the cast’s and the audience’s imagination become everything from boats to tower blocks, bunk beds to bookshelves and coffins to staircases, as well as representations of the self and the physical limitations of the body. At times, it’s rather like watching a small child play with a cardboard box: it’s often these simple objects that interest young children most, for whereas a complex electronic toy is exactly and only what it is meant to be, an empty box can become almost anything.

What’s particularly interesting here, of course, is that it’s actually the adults who play most imaginatively and enthusiastically with these boxes, and as the show progresses, the boundaries between teacher and pupil established at the start begin increasingly to blur. We are shown a kind of wisdom in the little monk’s youth and innocence, particularly when he sits meditating, Buddha-like, atop a pedestal, surrounded by the older monks, or when he placidly goes about his business, unconcerned by the other monks fighting around him. On the other hand there is a foolishness and playfulness in the adult “teacher”, Thabet, who for much of the performance seems to be struggling to learn the ways of the monks and become integrated into their community.

At the beginning of the show, Thabet is cast as an outsider, unable either physically or mentally to keep up with the monks with whom he is living. In the Q&A session following the performance, Thabet said that the whole production is essentially a representation of the three months he and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the choreographer, spent at the Shaolin Temple in China, and this quickly becomes apparent. He is singled out, not only by his movement, but also by his dress, and by the chrome paint covering the box he has been allocated, which seems to suggest a very Western, technological idea of modernity and sophistication. Interestingly, it also makes his box appear more cage-like than the more simple, organic-looking wooden boxes used by the monks. One of my fellow bloggers interpreted the character as a kind of prisoner or fugitive, and certainly we get a strong sense throughout of his entrapment. It is as if he is trying to cast off the constraints and confines of the developed Western world which he has brought with him, in order to free himself from the “box” in which this kind of life has placed him. This attempt to free himself involves a return to simplicity, and it is here that his connection with the little monk is important. Almost counter-intuitively, it seems he must first return to a kind of innocence and naivete if he is to achieve true wisdom.

The lotus flower formation of the boxes, with its petals opening around the boy in the centre, emphasises this organic naturalism as the true route to sophistication and wisdom. In direct contrast with this, the boxes are at one point set up like a series of city skyscrapers, around which suited monks rush and hurry in imitation of Western businessmen.

The boy both helps Thabet to physically break free of his box, calling him out of it each morning, and helps him to free his mind from within it. When he is left to his own devices, Thabet’s box becomes a cage, but once the boy enters, a fascinating transformation occurs, leading to one of the show’s most impressive and dreamlike sequences. Here the box seems to become a place of fluid thought and movement, a space within which to think and let the imagination roam freely – almost a representation of the mind itself. Instead of physical escape, true freedom seems to come from learning to think inside the box and creatively utilising the space we have. Tardis-like, Thabet’s box and his mind seem to become bigger inside, as he learns that introspection and discipline are the keys to achieving freedom from the pressures and constraints of Western excess.

Overall, this production was incredibly well-performed, and all the more impressive given the barriers of language and culture which separated the monks from everyone else involved. It’s a very complex production, and not one I’d recommend to everyone, but even as someone who knows very little about dance, I could recognise the skill and thought that had gone into creating it, and it was certainly an interesting experience.

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