They leap, they bound, they kick, they spin. They flip through the air with the greatest of ease. And when they're not doing all that, they pray. They're the soldier monks of the Shaolin Temple in China's Henan Province. Tonight, they'll be on stage at the Morris Mechanic Theatre, performing an internationally acclaimed show that celebrates their history, religion and physical skill.
The show, called Shaolin: Wheel of Life, combines high-kicking martial arts, high-technology lighting and dramatic music with a legendary story of tragedy and triumph.
As the monks were about to begin the second half of the North American tour that's bringing them to Baltimore and Washington (they perform at Lisner Auditorium tomorrow), the Wheel of Life's creator and producer, an amiable Englishman named Steve Nolan, answered questions about the show and the performers from his base in London.
Who are these soldier monks, and how did they get started doing kung fu?
They are Zen Buddhists whose predecessors established a temple in the Songshan Mountains of China in 495 A.D. In the early years, they used to meditate for weeks on end. In doing so, they got lots of aches and pains from sitting so long. They started doing stretching exercises that were based on what they saw animals doing. They saw cats jump off walls without hurting themselves, and they saw how quickly snakes strike. They began copying these animal movements, and over the centuries these exercises became known as kung fu. All kung-fu moves are based on animal movements. Eventually, the exercises [along with a few weapons] became a self-defense method of engagement. There was lots of warring in China back then.
When did today's monks decide to combine a prayerful life with a show-biz life?
The abbot of Shaolin Temple wanted to raise awareness of Buddhism and kung fu and raise money for the temple. He sent an envoy to Britain in early 1999. He went to the Royal Albert Hall in London and asked to book a date for a kung-fu show. Management told him to talk to me. [Nolan had produced a wide variety of shows there, and elsewhere.]
How did you envision the show?
Well, I wanted them to do more than a kung-fu demonstration. I wanted to include the history of the monks; to show where they came from. And I thought a theatrical show would get a wider audience. It could be a cultural exchange, not just a kung-fu-beat-'em-up.
When did the monks first perform?
It took from early 1999 to early 2000 for the first show to be produced. It was in Plymouth, England. Since then, they have performed in about 30 countries, including Japan, Australia, Lithuania, Dubai, Lebanon, Greece and Israel.
The story in the show is based on a legend. What's that all about?
The Five Ancestors is the name of the story. The soldier monks were called on to defend their emperor from an evil warlord. They win the battle but turn down the emperor's request that they stay with him. [Deeply offended], he slaughters all the monks except five young boys. The survivors are the five ancestors. They are joined by a new generation of monks and continue "the Wheel of Life."
What kind of stunts do the monks do in the show?
They break iron bars over heads. They also break 5-foot-long wooden poles on each other's backs or other body parts. The eldest monk does a two-fingered handstand. And in one scene, a monk lies on the floor. He's lifted up. Five monks go underneath him and hold him up by five spears.
How many monks are on the tour?
Twenty-five: 20 adults, five children. All are from the temple. There are four nonmonks. They're all actors. They play the wicked emperor, the emperor's general, the bad invading warlord and the temple's abbot. There also are three musicians, plus recorded music.
What can folks expect when they first walk into the theater?
They hear surround sound as soon as they enter the venue - real sounds from the temple. And there's incense burning and candles.
How long does the performance last?
There are two acts of about 45 minutes each, with a 20-minute intermission.
Is there an element of danger in the show?
Not for the audience. There's lots of swordplay - with theatrical swords. They have flexible blades, but they make a lot of noise. The blades are foillike. There's also lots of acrobatics. The monks get injuries like athletes get. Sore ankles and such.
What is the show's set like? Does it change?
It's a simple set, with lots of red. The monks need a lot of space to do all that they do, including triple somersaults. There are five or six scene changes.
Is there any audience participation?
None, apart from gasping and cooing. There's a gorgeous 8-year-old; all the mums will want to take him home.
What's the highlight of the show - without giving it all away?
Three-fourths of the show is the story [of the five ancestors]. For the last 15 or 20 minutes of the show, the monks go free-style. They do whatever they feel like doing. It's spectacular.
What's been the audience response so far?