The swords gleam in the bright lights, lined up, blades pointing upwards. I can tell their edges are sharp, glittering crisply in the hard yellow light. The man who stands in front of the blades is shirtless, his brown skin too soft to serve as armor against them. But his companions lay him flat on his back, right across them, and my breath catches as they place a board studded with nails on his chest.
Another man is laid on top of the board and a light blanket is thrown across his naked chest before a huge slab of dark grey stone is placed there. Finally a third man walks onto the floor, the heavy hammer in his hands a dark silouette against the bright orange of his trousers. His steps are quick and light as he crosses the floor. “Hai-Hua” he yells, lifting the hammer and slamming it down on the stone that rests uneasily on top of the pile of men and sharp objects.
The stone shatters in a geyser of flying gray and the blanket is whisked away. The first man stands and lifts his arms to show his unmarked belly. The nail studded board is lifted and the second man stands, also showing his perfectly whole skin. Simultaneously, they turn and show us their backs, bare of any sign that they have just lain between potentionally lethal surfaces as a slab of stone was smashed on top of them to maximise impact.They turn back. They take a bow. Then, briskly and silently, they walk offstage.
The speed with which the orange- clad arms and legs move is bewildering, each line precise, each angle perfect, each pose marked with an exclamation of breath to drive the power forward, but one coming so fast after the other that you don’t have the chance to see what’s happening. Before you’ve registered any more than merely movement, the dancing figure stops and bows. He looks out to the audience lit in the flood of house lights and invites all the children under 12 to join him on stage and perform this magnificent celebration of the balance and strength of the human body.
After such a display as the one we’ve just been privy to, there is no lack of volunteers. We all want superpowers, and maybe being near the men on stage will confer some of their magic over to the innocent bystander. The children come tumbling down the aisles, giggling with anticipation, marching, laughing, delighted, and terrified.
The monk in orange is joined by two others and together they place the kids in rows – the tallest in back, the smallest in front. One blond boy, a little one, keeps moving out of place, following the monks around, and he has to be picked up and carried back to his place in the front. A beautiful black girl bounces on the balls of her trainers, while a red-head behind her tries to disappear into the floor. Finally, all the children are lined up and the monks begin the sequence.
It is the same dance of flashing limbs that the soloist just performed, but done slowly, each move delineated, each hand gesture exaggerated and overblown so the crowd of children can copy and the parents in the audience get a perfect photo op of their kids mimicking the monks. The little blond boy gets confused by the changes in direction and always turns against the line of the motion. A laughing Chinese boy is overexcited and talks through the whole thing, asking the warriors if they will come visit him at home and chatting with his brother beside him who makes the moves too big in his excitement.
Later, the kids back in the audience with their parents, we watch what appears to be a graduation ceremony, the ultimate test before a blue-clad initiate can win his suit of orange and the stunning yellow robes that go over it. He has battled three men already and looks out to the audience for another challenger. Looking at us, he does not see the man coming behind him, though I know I’m not alone in wanting to shout out and let him know. I gesture with my hands almost involuntarily, instinct winning over the knowledge that this is all a show.
But the student has no need for my warning. The second man has struck the blow, and it lands against the first’s skull. A sickening crack resounds and I realize that my eyes have been squeezed shut against the moment for a while already, the blow I’ve been anticipating as real as the one on stage. I open my eyes and laugh with amazement; it was not the skull that was shattered, but the club. The hard-headed man takes what I find out later is called the ‘horse stance’ and bows to the circle of examiners who are now his brothers. He stands as the Highest Master walks on stage, yellow robes draped with a red dragon that gleams like blood and power. The Master bows to the graduate and places orange regalia upon his shoulders, and clasps the new brother’s hands in his own.
The Shaolin Warriors come to the Oxford New Theater from China, where the 22 performers are Buddhist monks fully trained in Kung Fu and Chi Gong. They began training as a theatrical unit in 2008, when they decided to teach the world about the Kung Fu philosophy through theater. England is the first stop on their fourth world tour. Buddhist monks are sworn to an oath of non-aggression, which makes the Shaolin Warrior’s martial arts training appear paradoxical, until you learn that Chi-Gong is also an art of non-aggression and Kung Fu masters learn first of all how to escape situations of violence before ever resorting to their fists. The show “Return of the Mater” tells the story of Chi Gong and Buddhist belief in the power of nature, of discipline, of mind and body.
They are in England until 2nd July.