It begins with a chant, setting up the mood for the entire evening as one long meditation on movement and self-discipline. The stage is bare, with minimal scenery. The only props are medieval weapons and a few vegetables.
Images are simple and powerful. A man chops cucumbers with a sword, using his stomach as a cutting board. Another breaks a steel pole over his head.
Motion is fluid and natural. Advancing, dodging, somersaulting and parrying all flow effortlessly into a hypnotic dance with martial arts forms choreographed into what appears to be a fast, precise and deadly ballet. Much of the material is presented in silence, although some sections include a taped mix of traditional Chinese music and Pop.
The graceful movements and acrobatics have an appeal one doesn't have to be a kung fu buff to appreciate. Scenes, loosely based around the four seasons, include various animal forms, fighting styles, weapons demonstrations and feats of amazing endurance. One major element that separates this performance from conventional theater is that everything portrayed on stage is real. There are no tricks, stunts or gimmicks. Their training includes exercises which allow them to withstand blows that would usually kill.
During one part of the show, a man is carried around the stage suspended on the tips of five spears. During another section, a young man places a bed of nails on his chest while another lies on top of that. A sheet of stone is put on top of him which other monks break with a sledge hammer. Both are unharmed.
They are not ordinary men: They are Zen Buddhists, renowned for their mastery of Chinese martial arts. Known as the Shaolin Monks, they seek mastery of the body as well as the mind. Legend dates the beginning of their sect around 540 A.D., when an Indian priest, Tamo, introduced Buddhism to China.
He taught them exercises designed to move energy throughout the body and build strength. These movements were derived from Indian yoga, as well as the movements of certain animals. Because they were in a secluded area and vulnerable to attack by bandits and wild animals, the monks also developed methods of self-defense. These gradually evolved into the fighting forms known today as Shaolin kung fu.
While the idea of a fighting monk sounds contradictory, onstage it appears appropriate, considering the mental and emotional control they exhibit. Xiu Qin Wang, the monks' interpreter, emphasizes that they only use the exercises as part of their mental discipline. "It's only to keep strong, not to fight. It helps them reach a certain condition, a certain state of mind."
It also may seem odd for ego-less monks to demonstrate religious practices onstage across the globe. The 24 performers, who range in age from 9 to 36, tour to promote Chinese culture. Master Ma, a 33-year-old monk says, "We are very glad so many American people enjoy our show, and we are very excited to go before so many audiences. The martial arts of Shaolin Temple are spreading worldwide, and I am pleased and honored to be one of the people that help to promote this cultural heritage." According to Wang, shows in other cities have consistently sold out. It's a rare opportunity to experience a demonstration one would normally have to travel to the temple to see firsthand.
Throughout the show, simplicity prevails. Devoid of garishness and overstatement, the skill of the performers comes across as truly phenomenal. Haunting backdrops and tasteful transitions refine potentially raw martial arts demonstrations into a pleasing display of color and motion. The entire production gives the impression of having been cultivated through careful meditation, and is refreshing and enlightening.
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