In his 'Brief Introduction to the Shaolin Martial Arts' in the 'Sutra' programme, Meir Shahar suggests the appealing notion that through their Shaolin martial arts training, the monks are not training their bodies for battle (being Buddhist and therefore inherently non-violent), but rather "cultivating their minds for spiritual awakening".
The movement content in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's 'Sutra' is undeniably impressive, but there is sadly little evidence of anything deeper than incredible physicality. The presence of twenty-one Shaolin monks and Antony Gormley's sixteen large wooden boxes on the Sadler's Wells stage is, however, truly a spectacle unlike any other that's been seen for a long time.
The opening of the work sets up a relationship between Ali Thabet and the youngest of the monks, seemingly pondering deeply over a miniature version of the structure of boxes. The nature of their connection isn't completely clear, but there is a sense of Thabet playing 'puppet master' with the small boxes, dicatating what happens on a larger scale onstage, which continues throughout the work.
With his incredible skill and undeniable cute-factor, the young boy monk has the audience captivated from the start, and is responsible for many of the gently comedic moments sprinkled within 'Sutra'.
Another element of this is Ali Thabet's innate 'non-Shaolin-ness', as he moves through moments of confrontation with individuals and groups of monks, sometimes clumsily and occasionally with real skill.
The piece moves through costume changes from the traditional to more modern suits, as the monks move 'wearing' the boxes and walk in a charming, Chaplin-esque way that carves the space, followed by criss-crossing pathways of incredible tricks to the soundtrack of the monks' shouts and cries.
There is no shortage of striking imagery and heartstoppingly slick moments, and Cherkaoui excels in choreographing the space through frenetic moments and times of stillness, juxtaposing the Shaolin elements of calmness and aggression in equal measure.
Although the monks' movement does not lend itself readily to musicality, Szymon Brzoska's beautifully-performed score keeps a constant connection to the visual action as the energies build and ebb together.
Towards the closing of the work there is a sense of reconcilliation, or conclusion, though quite from what has never been abundantly clear.