Sutra Performer Ali Thabet Talks Kung-Fu, Stunts And Inspiration

The award-winning Sutra is finally heading to Toronto. The show premiered in London in 2008, and since then has travelled the globe while stunning audiences with their mix of Kung-Fu and Dance, as they interact with coffin-like wooden boxes that represent the Shaolin discipline of self-control. The show features 19 Shaolin Temple Monks fighting, leaping, spinning and rolling as they showcase the skills they’ve spent their lifetime learning. The show is more than that though, and it’s artistic displays of talent will keep you mesmerized. The show stopped in Quebec City on May 1st, and will continue in Montreal from May 3 – 9, Toronto on May 12th and finally reach Sherbrook on May 15. We had a chance to talk to Ali Thabet, the assistant choreographer and a performer in the show.

Real Style: How did you get involved in Sutra?
Ali Thabet: I met Larbi (choreographer and co-creator of Sutra Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) in 2003 when we worked together on a show called Tempus Fugit.  5 years later he had this proposition about this project with the Shaolin Temple and he thought about me, and called me to be part of the production because he knew I was a huge fan of Shaolin culture.

RS: How much practice/rehearsal is necessary before the show?
AT: For me personally, an hour of warm-up and stretching.

RS: With the venue constantly changing, how much preparation is done to make sure you know each stage properly?
AT: The technical team do a great job when we are touring to ensure that the space is prepared for us in a way that we can perform. We tour with the same dance floor and same floor markings so it is only really the size of the venue that changes. We have a full-length rehearsal the day of the performance so that everyone can get used to the space and the size, and we can see if anything needs to be changed, for example, box positions and number of boxes in each formation. The monks are very good at adapting if things need to be changed in different venues.

RS: What’s your favorite city you’ve performed in?
AT: With Sutra: Wellington – the atmosphere in New Zealand was incredible. We were invited to a Haka and traditional Maori ceremony at sunrise by the local team to welcome all of us to New Zealand.
Outside of Sutra: Ramallah, when performing with my brother in one of my own shows.

RS: Do you come up with new stunts on a regular basis?
AT: Yes, this was why Larbi hired me. He knew he was planning to work with the boxes with Antony Gormley, and he knew in the circus world that everything on stage can be used as a tool; as an apparatus. We are also more fearless than other traditional dancers, so I am always looking to include new small stunts in the piece without removing from the overall journey of the dance that Larbi has created.

RS: What’s your favorite aspect of the show?
AT: The natural rhythm of the show. It naturally goes from very explosive moments to soft moments. We did not think about it at the time we were creating it but clearly the skill of the martial arts inspired us to make our perfect balance for the rhythm of the show.

RS: Who inspires you?
AT: Related to the show of course Bruce Lee. I try to be inspired by all the little things in every person, I don’t have one person that inspires me. Sometimes I see someone in the street that I don’t know, but they really inspire me by watching the way that they work. For example, I was in China and I saw a guy of 60/70 years old climbing stairs with at least 50kg of material on his shoulders and the way he worked and climbed, I could see that he really understood his body and his goal. But this is only a very small aspect of one person. Yes, I could tell you Pina Bausch, I could tell you some movie director. But it is always some small inspiration that I have from them. Mostly I try to be inspired by all the people around me and sometimes, it’s my brother, sometimes it’s my father, my mother, my son…but ultimately, I do not have an idol.

RS: What’s the hardest stunt you have to perform?
AT: Managing the boxes, is the hardest stunt for me. Some of the tricks, we only made successful on the last week of creation after months of rehearsals. In turn, making it simple and easy to practice was also hard so that it could be repeated every performance. Learning the Kung Fu sections was also very difficult.

Sutra can be see in Quebec City on May 1, Montreal May 3-9, Toronto May 12 and Sherbrook May 15.

Photos: Sutra