Six years ago I saw the Shaolin monks in Melbourne in an arena-style show. I don't remember much of the performance, other than a few stand-out solos of physical prowess, one of which involved an extremely lithe older monk placing his ankle behind his neck while balancing on one hand. There was an English voiceover offering a history of the Shaolin monastery, descriptions of the activities as they occurred on stage and, in the curtain call, introductions of the monks by name and age.
The monks' current touring show, Legendary Masters of Kung Fu, has a much more integrated theatrical approach, with acts blending comfortably into one another and plenty of fast-paced ensemble action. It's not short on entertainment, even for Kung Fu virgins like myself. While there are no verbal explanations of the action and no direct narrative to be ascertained, Legendary Masters of Kung Fu moves fluidly through choreographed group numbers, movement sequences that take on the characteristics of various fighting techniques, individual monks showing mastery of weaponry and even some successful audience participation. It has a cohesion and flow to it that the arena show did not and is only let down by its bland, recorded music that does little to build up the tension of difficult actions or celebrate the power of unison movement.
The Order of Shaolin Ch'an was founded in 520 CE by an Indian Monk called Ta Mo and is a branch of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism. According to lore, Ta Mo meditated for nine consecutive years and created a routine of breathing exercises and other physical activities to help monks endure the strenuous days of meditative immobility. The seemingly contradictory practices of Buddhist philosophies and martial arts techniques are the focus of the monks' lives. They spend years training at the monastery in Henan, China, learning meditation, hand to hand, as well as weapon combat, and many other elements of physical control. They believe that by controlling their body through their spirit, they can live in physical and spiritual harmony and withstand the pains of daily exercise.
And based on what they show us here, their daily exercise must involve pain. Lying on beds of nails, doing hand stands on two fingers, balancing torsos on the points of upright spears, breaking wood on bare foreheads - these are not the feats of ordinary mortals. These displays are interwoven with larger group formations in highly stylized scenarios. Some scenes depict the role of the master as guider and corrector of the students, with the monks, as the disciples, in lines of unison movement and one man, playing the teacher, walking through them and making subtle corrections to body placement. Another time, they pick 10 little Aussie boys from the audience, who, completely transfixed and obedient, did their best to follow along as a monk guided them through a sequence of punches and kicks.
But for my money, what was the most intriguing element was the power of seeing a large group of bodies in such precise, fast paced movement. The combination of soft suppleness and bursts of frenetic power was as exciting as a dance performance where each movement surprises and leaves you with mouth agape. I got goose bumps watching the highly-charged, very complex bursts of physicality. In one number, two young boys started a tumbling sequence, crawling forward and then propelling themselves straight upward into the air. This built into more monks gradually joining in and creating running lines that whished in and out of circles and curvaceous shapes, punctuated with high kicks, low rolls to the ground, high rolls in the air, mellifluous poses and aerial acrobatics. The tightness, both mentally and physically between the ensemble was palpable. Not something that you see often, except with groups who know each other and their physical discipline very very well.
While the audience had an abundance of boys and Kung Fu enthusiasts, Legendary Masters of Kung Fu has enough appeal to enrapture diverse audiences. Just don't go trying what you see on stage at home, or a body part may end up on the floor just like the cabbage that a monk shredded with a huge knife on his own stomach.
Shaolin Warriors: Legendary Masters of Kung-Fu
Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre
Dates: 23 - 27 January 2007
Times: Tues – Sat @ 7:30pm
Duration: 2 hours including one interval
Bookings: Ticketek on 1300 795 012 or www.ticketek.com.au