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Shaolin Monks

'Wheel of Life'

Keeping it real

by Cerise

September 7, 2004 -- Peacock Theatre, London

Shrouded in mystique and various shades of orange robes in their publicity, I must admit it was for very shallow reasons of curiosity and self-indulgence that I was motivated to see the "Wheel of Life" live show. From what I already knew, it was going to be a guaranteed visual and kinetic feast.

On the occasional instance when I think anyone might be interested in my opinions on religious philosophy, I tell people I believe that the mind is infinite. I duly accredit this idea to its rightful source: it’s the foundation of Buddhism and the premise on which meditation is based. Then, I go on to say that I believe that the body is also infinite, at which point most listeners dismiss my ramblings as fantastical. Now and then, because I am a flawed human, I take pleasure in being proven right. The Shaolin monks’ show demonstrates just how powerful the body can really be.

But this isn’t about what I think: this is about some very special monks doing what they do impeccably and keeping Buddhism real and visible for us semi-illuminated folks. This is the way it should be. It’s not appropriate to evaluate this kind of performance with aesthetic judgements, or even engage in a debate on whether it is dance or not. The main reason "The Wheel of Life" is of continued interest to dance critics and aficionados is due to its choreographer, Darshan Singh Bhuller, whose staging of a vast quantity of bodies, set, props and sheer energy has won him deserved acclaim.

The only tiny flaw was in the composition of the show, that meant that it contained a kind of ‘false ending'. The interlocuted story of the history of the Shaolin Temple ended with bows and applause, but then went continued into displays of very advanced Kung Fu, such as the famous ‘monk sandwich’ (christened by Jenny Gilbert) and spearhead balance. It’s also possible to link the show’s dance crossover audience to the wide influence of martial arts disciplines and practices on contemporary dance, ever since Merce Cunningham’s application of Zen to choreographic principles. Plus, I’d like to think that the show’s generic popularity is because more people than ever are being turned on by Buddhism worldwide.

Seeing the show live for the first time, I found it compares favourably to the televised version, which is now available to buy on VHS and DVD. Watching a screen, it is easy to associate the whole genre of Kung Fu with stunts, camera tricks, and as is increasingly the case, digital enhancement and computer generated animation. Therefore, it’s such a treat to see the monks live and be reminded that they are flesh, and to witness not the blank poker faces of extreme mental concentration (as are lingered on by the television cameras), but the expressions of vibrant, receptive focused beings. They radiate good humour, and it’s clear that there is a great deal of tacit communication taking place amongst the choreographed manoeuvres in spite of the hammy acting and pumping synthesised drum and bass soundtrack. Besides, the monks are not ‘acting’. There’s perceptible calm empathy between them despite being engaged in potentially lethal combat sequences. Even the youngest eight-year-old monks are apparently oblivious to the packed theatre audience's attention, gasps and applause. And yet why should we be surprised at these young monks flexibility and acrobatic agility? Most children would be capable of exuding such purity of life force, if provided with the opportunity and right guidance. These boys have no need for computer games when they are the real reality, not a virtual one.

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Edited by Jeff.

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