Every morning on my way to work, I have the great displeasure of exiting the A train at the Broadway-Nassau stop in lower Manhattan: one of the ugliest, most crowded subway stations in the city, where thousands upon thousands of drones set off to their meaningless desk jobs each and every day. Adding insult to injury, many make their way through this daily maze staring dumbstruck into the irresistable glow of their iPhones, Blackberrys and other handheld toys, blithely crashing into trashcans, pillars and passersby. It is enough to make you weep for the loss of common decency, of humanity itself. (You've all seen the Chivas commercial.)
I thought about this as I sat in the Rose Theater last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center for Sutra, part of Lincoln Center's ongoing White Light Festival. Unlike White Light's other presentations, the hour-long piece is a work of modern dance, featuring 17 monks from the Shaolin Temple in China, known for their gravity-defying expertise in martial arts. There is no dialogue, only a tonal, Hollywood-worthy score performed live by the young Polish composer Szymon Brzoska and his ensemble.
Sutra is the brainchild of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who encountered the monks by chance in his native Antwerp in 2007. British artist Antony Gormley contributed the visual design, consisting primarily of 21 coffin-like wooden boxes which the monks slid in and out of throughout the performance, shifting them around like a modular set.
At one point, the monks changed into charcoal business suits, mimicking the death march of those daily commuters I mentioned earlier. It didn't take long for them to ditch the suits in favor of bare chests and traditional gray pantaloons, in which they hurtled along to an intense, Kung-fu finale.
The message was more-or-less clear: the rat race Western culture perpetuates is killing us, and if we look outside our narrow-minded ambitions for just a minute, we can find a better path: one that will yield not only material riches, but spiritual ones as well. Not to mention a completely-cut upper torso.
BTW, the next time you're looking for a little release during your morning commute, try blasting Brahms' Requiem (heard last weekend during the White Light Festival) on your iPod. Especially the second section, "Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras":
For all flesh is as grass,
and all the glory of man
as the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls away.