To Do List: Meditation in Action

Shaolin Monks take the stage

Feb 21, 2002 at 2:06 pm
The Shaolin Warriors

The slap of a wooden pole on the ground. A red fan in the mist. Somewhere, Buddha smiles. The Shaolin Warriors — performing at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Aronoff Center — share an ancient art that transcends theater.

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. Believing it was his path to nirvana, the emperor commanded Chinese monks to translate Buddhist teachings from Sanskrit for public use. Tamo traveled to a temple to meet some of these monks and was surprised to see they were sickly and weak from hunching over their scriptures all day.

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.

Saturday 22
Mixing a rootsy base and a Power Pop buzz, 34 SATELLITE's latest release, Stop, is a crafty, slippery-structured LP with an emphasis on memorable melodies and sincere, heartfelt Rock & Roll. The record is the band's follow-up to their successful 2000 indie release, Radar, and it takes the loose formula of that album and runs with it, with a sound that ranks with some of the best of today's current Pop/Rock purveyors, including Matthew Sweet, Superdrag and the Flaming Lips. The band pulls into the Southgate House's parlour on Saturday with Chris McCoy and Michael Jantz. 859-431-2201. — MIKE BREEN

A new film print with a digital soundtrack and 24 seconds of additional footage seals Monty Python's 1975 collection of medieval sketches, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, for cult comedy status. Most fans remember watching Holy Grail via worn videotapes and old prints shown at college film series. Today's midnight audiences have the chance to enjoy Python-style comedy with sparkling clarity. — STEVE RAMOS

Are you breaking the law? Well, you could be — especially if you're involved in one of the 2,674 theater groups here in the Tristate. We know. It's all one big misunderstanding. But breaking copyright law is all too common — whether it involves using music or changing the dialogue in a theater production. There's no need to seek salvation for your sins though. A COPYRIGHT LAW WORKSHOP in Evendale will help you wade through the ins and outs of legal mumbo-jumbo. 513-471-2030. — BRANDON BRADY

Sunday 24
Mars and Venus have nothing on Cincinnati this week. Two — that's right, TWO — theaters are producing shows by Carter Lewis that explore the dark recesses of the minds of men and women. MEN ON THE TAKE is happening at the Cincinnati Playhouse (513-421-3888) and WOMEN WHO STEAL is onstage at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (513-421-3555). — RICK PENDER

Tuesday 26
First time novelist/mathematician MANIL SURI's Death of Vishnu is India by the numbers. His equation for a microcosm of Indian society begins with Vishnu's building: three floors containing two Hindu couples, one Muslim couple and one widower. He adds one man dying on the steps (Vishnu), two lovesick teen-agers, one prophetic vision and the multiple stages of Hindu life. Hear Suri discuss this timeless novel of humor and heartbreak at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Click here for an interview with Suri. 513-396-8960. — REBECCA LOMAX