First Night: Sutra, Sadler's Wells, London<img src="http://www.independent.co.uk/multimedia/archive/00015/3stars_15783a.jpg" alt="3 stars" height="10" width="56"/>

Kung fu without fighting and boxing that's gentle
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The Independent Culture

If, like me, you start at onstage falls or crashes, you'll jump a lot during Sutra. There are plenty of them during this international collaboration between Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, British sculptor Antony Gormley and monks from the Shaolin Temple. Standing on tall wooden boxes, the monks tilt them under their feet, leaping free as the boxes fall. In another scene, they stand inside their crates like a line of sentries – and are knocked over like dominoes.

That sounds spectacular, but Sutra, which had its world premiere at Sadler's Wells last night, stays at the contemplative end of martial arts. Larbi has long been interested in kung fu, and was inspired by the monks' Buddhism as well as their moves. Rehearsals started at the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, China, before moving back to Europe. Many of these performers have never left China before.

Yet this isn't the first time Shaolin monks have appeared on stage: another troupe tour regularly with martial arts spectaculars. Sutra puts the same physical skills into a far more austere setting. Gormley's set frames the stage with white gauze, the musicians just visible behind it. The rest of the set consists of those boxes – wooden for the monks, plus a metal one for Larbi. He starts the show sitting on it, moving smaller models of the boxes into new patterns, as a child monk watches. Behind them, adult monks move their boxes into Larbi's patterns.

There's some comedy in this. They build box towers, with people still trapped inside. A whole group of monks jump from a tall platform into Larbi's upturned box, which soon looks like an overcrowded boat. Larbi himself, climbing into it, descends in stages as if going down stairs, then drifts back up as if lifted by a tide of water. Those patterns of boxes and people are spacious, inventive and slow-paced. Organising them does take time. They're piled into a fort with sentries and a drawbridge, or into Stonehenge arches.

Szymon Brzóska's chamber score ripples alongside, with low cello notes or soft gongs. It's lyrical but lulling, with an oddly softening effect on the monks' brief displays of skill. It's a long way from the excitements of the flashier kind of martial arts. I find I miss that speed and dazzle.

The moves are still remarkable. These men do backflips, twisting jumps with pumping limbs, or fall flat from the height of a leap. Bracing poles against the ground, they run up and around them. Larbi, from a different movement tradition, has his own dramatic moments. He does a headstand without hands, then tips over, his body straight, falling like a tree. There's drama, too, in those wooden patterns. Having upended a group of boxes, the monks slowly tip them over. They open outwards from the centre, slow and steady, like the petals of a giant wooden flower.

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