Shaolins and tap dancing

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Artistic collaborations promise so much, but so often fail.

Who could forget filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's teaming up with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in the turkey Eyes Wide Shut? Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder singing "Ebony and Ivory" also springs to mind.

Sutra is a different kind of collaboration altogether. It brings together Buddhist warrior monks from the Shaolin Temple in China, British sculptor Anthony Gormley, Moroccan/Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Polish composer Szymon Brzóska.

Sutra is an unbelievable combination of dance, design and haunting atmospherics. It is a piece of art that takes you on a powerful and mystical journey.

The power comes in the form of the Shaolin Monks. As for many teenagers of my generation, Bruce Lee was a role model - not just the characters he portrayed, but the man himself and the worldview he embodied. It was through Lee, and later the Wu-Tang Clan, that I developed a superficial interest in Shaolin monks and their fighting skills.

My love of kung fu movies was shared by most of the black kids in my school. The reason is obvious. In an age when black characters were rarely shown on television - the next best thing was to see a Chinese man kicking the shit out of the white man.

The heritage of the monks shines through the speed and ferocity of their punches, flying kicks and back flips. But what was once ritual and militaristic becomes dance and poetry on stage, a sort of fusion of unity of thought and action.

Rather than create a retro kung fu score, Szymon Brzóska has written a soundscape that gives the monks the space to tell their story and creates a trance like atmosphere.

The mystical comes from Gormley. Gormley is well known as the sculptor of The Angel of the North and his life size metal figures that stare out across the sands on Crosby Beach near Liverpool and stood around the South Bank in central London. As the figures stare across the landscape, they capture the solitude of modern urban living.

For Sutra, Gormley has built 21 wooden boxes that look like coffins. They occupy the stage and are big enough to house a grown man. The monks weave their way in and out of these boxes and rearrange them into patterns and shapes. At one point the boxes resemble the petals of a lotus flower, the next a forest, and when they are upended they become a city of skyscrapers. At this point the monks stand and gaze in awe, as if on their arrival in a city for the first time.

This is a story of tradition, migration and a changing world. Are the monks moving from the countryside to the city, or are they migrating from China to a far off country? It doesn't matter either way they tell a story of immigration and displacement.

Art at its best makes you look at the world from a different perspective. Sutra takes you to a different world and back to yours and makes you think about both in a new way.

Dance is attracting a new, younger, more racially diverse audience. Of course Sutra attracted the typical middle class crowd. But as several commentators have noted, hip-hop kids, inspired by their musical heroes' love of the Shaolin monks, were in the audience, and working class people inspired by Gormley's public art were drawn to see his work set in a different context.

One swallow doesn't make a summer, I hear you say. That is true, but according to Sadler's Wells, a number of flamenco shows have seen hordes of young people coming to the dance theatre for the first time. Also this time last year Savion Glover brought the crowds in droves to see his dance show. There were people as young as five and as old as 90 there. Glover drew some of the most racially diverse crowds into a theatre to see a dance performance. You may never have heard of him. But if you have a child under ten years of age they almost certainly will have, but they will know him as Mumble, the dancing penguin in the animated film Happy Feet.

Glover has made tap cool again and is reinventing the tradition. He plays music through his feet: one foot plays the bass lines and the rhythm is on the other. Glover is taking tap to a new and exciting level, back to where it first started: the street. In the early immigrant ghettos of the US, Irish and black dancers began trading moves from which tap was born. Glover adds hip-hop moves and beats to create a new and exciting twist. And just like Sutra, Glover tells a story of transportation, migration and cultural exchange.

The street is coming into the dance theatres and the dance theatres are looking to the street - now that's music to the feet!


Sutra is currently on tour across Europe for the rest of 2008 (see www.sadlerswells.com)