Blakean Boxes?

Last night I went to see a dance piece called Sutra at the Lowry. The work is a collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, sculptor Antony Gormley and a group of Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China.

In the piece, dancer Ali Thabet (who is also the assistant choreographer) interacts with seventeen monks aged between 10 and 26 whose spectacular performance is based on the kung fu and tai chi which forms part of their daily religious ritual. Sidi Larbi spent several months at Shaolin to work collaboratively with the monks to devise the piece.

The piece is accompanied by a score composed by Szymon Brzoska which was also developed — and onstage develops — alongside the piece.

Antony Gormley’s set consists of twenty-one boxes which are moved around onstage by the monks and Thabet to create forms including walls, temples, beds, boats, lotus flowers. Gormley was involved from the early stages of the project; he also spent time at the monastery and says that the boxes are influenced by the Temple itself. I wonder if Blake might be somewhere in the background. Gormley has talked in the past of an interest in Blake, and when Thabet and the monks move inside the boxes and push against the walls, it recalls — at least for one with a Blake radar nearly always switched on — images by Blake in which figures such push against the frames of the picture (e.g. “First Book of Urizen pl.21”).

By what can only be an intriguing coincidence, the title of the piece resonates with Blakean symbolism. “Sutra” literally means a rope or thread that holds things together, and analogously refers to a rule, or set of rules. Binding, for Blake, means oppression; his “golden string” is an inspirational thread which as one winds leads to “heaven’s gate.”

In Sutra, the performers are at times bounded by the enclosure of the boxes, but they also escape from them and reshape their forms. I’m not suggesting, of course, that the piece is intended to be a Blakean dance, but it certainly has Blakean resonances.

Obsessive observance of Blake all over the place aside, this was a very powerful piece (even with the constant chatter and rustling from large numbers of school children who for some reason best known to their teachers were in attendance), which I’d highly recommend if you get the chance to see it.

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