Over a decade after its world premiere on our stage in May 2008, Sutra is one of Sadler’s Wells’ most successful and longest running productions.

The award-winning work – a collaboration between our Associate Artist Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, sculptor Antony Gormley and 19 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China –- has captured the hearts and imaginations of people the world over, visiting 70 cities in 34 countries. It has been enjoyed by audiences of over 250,000 across the globe, proving that whatever one’s cultural frame of reference or artistic lens, the production tells a story that everyone can to relate to.

This year marked significant milestones: Sidi Larbi opened Sutra’s summer tour in August with performances in cities across Greece, Italy, Germany and Turkey. Celebrating its 11th anniversary, the show also reached its 250th performance and is going to have its Chinese premiere in Shanghai in November. We look at Sutra’s enduring legacy to discover what makes this production so special.

Sutra celebrates its 250th performance. Image: Suzanne Walker.

1. The production

Sutra. Image: Hugo Glendinning.

Set within a contemporary context, Sutra explores the philosophy and faith behind the Shaolin tradition, as well as the core principles and ideals of Buddhism. The production delves into themes that are at the same time specific to that belief system and universal in the way they resonate with people the world over: the interconnectedness of mind, body and soul; the unity between the individual and the collective; the humanistic quest for harmony with one’s natural surroundings. Choreographed by Cherkaoui, it features an original score by his long-time collaborator and composer Szymon Brzóska.

The practices of the warrior monks of the Shaolin Temple have long been a source of fascination for the Belgian-Moroccan choreographer, predating Sutra’s creation and stemming back to his childhood. “I was inspired by their understanding of movement,” he says. “Their complete identification with the world around them, that amazing ability to become the essence of a tiger, a crane or a snake; to transform energy from cold to warm, yin to yang.”

Sutra. Image: Andrée Lanthier.

Perhaps part of the beauty of Sutra lies in the bond between Cherkaoui and the monks. Sharing no common language other than a deep respect for each other’s’ movement vocabulary, they engage in a dialogue that transcends cultural, linguistic and artistic borders – inviting all who watch it to embark on an exhilarating journey into the worlds of kung fu, contemporary dance, martial arts and visual art.

Huang Jia Hao – Master of the Shaolin Temple and rehearsal director for Sutra – has been an original cast member since the first ever performance and leads and trains the monks.

“The most special thing about Sutra is that it is not just about one culture or people. It is not just about Western culture or just about Chinese culture and kung fu – it is about mixing the two” he explains.  

Sutra‘s cast on their 2019 tour in Trento, Italy. Image: Marius Arnold-Clarke.

2. The cast

The title Sutra comes from the Pali word sutta, a collective term for the sermons of Buddha. In Sanskrit, the word translates as ‘string’, ‘thread’, or ‘measure of straightness’. Sutra is also a generic term for rules – in Hinduism, ‘sutras’ laid down the guidelines for proper conduct in life.

It follows then that the cast of Sutra observe a strict Buddhist doctrine that demands a considerable level of mental, physical and spiritual discipline and rigor, with kung fu and Tai Chi martial arts forming an integral part of their daily practice. The performers are all Buddhist monks from the original Shaolin Temple, situated near Songshan Mountain in the Henan Province of China. It was established in 495AD by monks originating from India.

The Shaolin Temple. Image: Szymon Brzóska

Jia Hao says: Sutra is an original piece featuring the original monks from the Shaolin Temple. This explains why the show has been so popular with people around the world; this is not something that is available to people on a daily basis, so it is a special thing to witness.”

Since 2008, over 30 monks have taken part in the production. Young monks from the Sutra premiere have returned to the production as adults. With the exception of Lead Monk Jia Hao, the current tour consists of a completely new cast of monks. This year also sees the youngest cast in Sutra’s history, with a total of 16 young monks joining the production.

Cast members on their 2019 summer tour in Torino, Italy. Image: Suzanne Walker.

3. The set

‘Nothing is lost: it just changes form.’ This mantra is central to the Buddhist philosophy and one that Sutra’s striking and unique set design lives by. Designed by Antony Gormley, the set features 21 wooden, human-sized boxes that the monks push, drag and manipulate across the stage in a breath-taking display of athleticism and skill.

Each box represents a world of endless metamorphic possibilities, changing form and function: from bed to coffin, pillar and portal. For Gormley, the boxes convey a central theme of how “the mind is housed in the body, and the body in the architectural space – the second body.”

Sutra. Image: Andrée Lanthier.

“Kung fu is not designed to be a stage show or performance” Jia Hao explains. “Neither is it something that you perform with props or boxes as we do in the show, so this has been an interesting challenge to overcome. The biggest difficulty is performing kung fu to music. Kung fu movement is something that is very personal to every monk, and yet everything needs to be done in unison. I think Sutra’s success is a testament to the hard work of the show’s director and, of course, Sadler’s Wells.”

Sutra. Image: Andrée Lanthier.

On the legacy of the show, Sadler’s Wells’ Executive Producer Suzanne Walker said: “When we first premiered Sutra, no one could have imagined it would become such a global and enduring success. It’s been an incredible journey of discovery for everyone involved.”

“In Sutra, we’ve seen the potential of dance to find connections with other cultures through a shared language of movement. It has been as much about this legacy as it has been about the family created along the way: from the artists and musicians to the technicians and producers, who have come back to tour time and time again.”

Cast members on their 2019 summer tour in Athens, Greece. Image: Marius Arnold-Clarke.

More information about Sutra on tour is available here.

Header image: Marius Arnold-Clarke.