Everybody is kung-fu fighting

The Shaolin Monks' Wheel of Life show puts 1,500 years of martial arts history on stage
Click to follow

"I asked myself, why? Why would peaceful monks want to split foot-thick blocks with their bare hands?" says Steve Nolan, the producer of the Shaolin Monks' Shaolin: Wheel of Life show. In September 1999, Nolan flew to China and drove down a road resembling a Bruce Lee dream sequence, where kung fu weaponry shops lined the bumpy route to the Shaolin Temple. This, according to the monks, is the birthplace of martial arts, which were created here 1,500 years ago.

Before Nolan's trip to China, an emissary had arrived in London. "The Abbot of the Shaolin Temple had sent a Chinese entrepreneur who turned up at the Royal Albert Hall trying to book it for a Shaolin demonstration," Nolan says. "They were very keen to get performing, so I was drafted in to help."

Nolan felt it would be a shame to have just a demonstration. "It could have been the Hounslow Kung Fu Club for all you knew," he says. Heset about turning the monks' katas (movements) into a stage show. He added a narrative structure which, in its latest incarnation, features 25 monks, four actors and three musicians telling the history of kung fu. Micha Bergese, who created the Millennium Dome central show in 2000, directs.

There is no doubt that this is a full-on martial-arts show, and it draws a large following of such fans. But last year dance critics reviewed the Shaolin Monks because, when they are not jumping or breaking iron bars across their heads or having wooden staves shattered against their chests, their movements are animal-like - graceful and ethereal.

"Kung fu stemmed, I think, from needing to move around a bit after meditating for so long," says Nolan. "Apparently, one particular monk meditated for nine years and the sun cast his permanent shadow on to a nearby wall." The monks watched animals for inspiration. "The stretching started with t'ai chi. Then came qi gong, which developed as a deterrent. The temple had been attacked too many times. By creating a force field around themselves, they harnessed energy into one place in the body to withstand these blows. It's got to be about pain management, but once you see the monks in action, you wouldn't try it on with them."

Do they have accidents? "It's much the same as for a dance troupe. Mainly ankles and wrists," says Nolan, whose show toured Europe and America earlier this year. "Eighteen months ago one monk did a somersault and landed on his neck. They get a few cuts from the swordplay, but you have to remember that most of them joined the temple at four years old. Apart from the five children, the 20 monks in the show are in their mid-twenties and have doing it a long time. In fact, it's all they ever do."

'Shaolin: Wheel of Life', Peacock Theatre, London WC2, 8 Sept - 4 Oct (020-7863 8222; www.sadlerswells.com)