Shaolin monks bring true kung fu to South Florida
January 6, 2003
They break iron bars
over their heads, balance on spear points and whirl through the air like the
stars of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
But the Shaolin Monks are
much more than kung-fu artists, says British promoter Steve Nolan.
like the difference between college football and NFL football," Nolan says.
"They are just leaps and bounds ahead of everybody else [in the martial-arts
field]. It's a manifestation of their [Buddhist] religion, so it goes a lot
deeper than how to do kung fu."
Nolan first heard about the group, now
touring the United States as the "Shaolin Wheel of Life," when an envoy from the
Shaolin Temple in the Chinese province of Henan booked London's Royal Albert
Hall for a fund-raising event three years ago. The monks, who were not used to
Western ways, needed some production help, and a representative of the hall
Nolan was intrigued. As a kid he had watched Kung
, a 1970s TV show in which David Carradine portrayed a Shaolin monk in the
"They have a 1,500-year history. They're almost like Robin
Hood. They defended emperors and fought off warlords," Nolan says. "I just
thought it was a bit of a waste if all we did was a kung-fu demonstration,
because it wouldn't explain anything about them."
Nolan traveled to China
and presented his ideas to the abbot, the highest-ranking Buddhist in the
country. The abbot was enthusiastic and gave the go-ahead for a tour, which
visits the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre on Tuesday. A portion of ticket sales
benefits Shaolin schools, where up to 40,000 students train in kung
After viewing more than 300 monks perform martial-arts routines, a
production team came up with a show that tells the story of the monks' early
struggle to establish and protect their temple.
The story follows five
boys, from the ages of 8 to 16, who defend the emperor from a warlord and are
the only survivors after the ruler turns on the Shaolin order.
of life depicts one of the Buddhist symbols and the belief that life continues
to revolve [even when bad things happen]," Nolan says.
includes elaborate sets and lighting and haunting Eastern music. The cast of 25
includes four actors and three musicians who advance the story theatrically. But
usually, all eyes are on the monks and their incredible feats of martial
"All of the kung-fu moves are based on animal moves. They copied a
lot of the ways animals defend themselves," Nolan says. "And the breathing
exercises allow them to focus the energy into a particular part of the body so
they can withstand blows."
At first the monks went all out because they
did not know how to pace themselves during performances. "During the first few
weeks we had an awful lot of injuries because they would just come out of the
wings flying," Nolan says.
They learned to tone down their exploits a
notch to preserve their bodies while still thrilling audiences with their
The troupe also was unfamiliar with stage
presence and the concept of showmanship.
"When we put the show together,
we knew instantly that we wouldn't get these monks to act. Why should we tell
people who have been doing this for 1,500 years how it should be done? They know
better than we do how to present it," Nolan says.
During the first shows,
"the monks would perform and just high-tail it" off the stage, leaving the
audience confused about whether to applaud, Nolan recalls. Organizers tried to
get the monks to bow, but they said, "'We can't accept any gratification,'"
After explaining that viewers needed help learning to
relax and enjoy themselves, the monks agreed to put one hand in front of their
chests and do a "teeny-weeny little bow" at the end of each segment, Nolan
During rehearsals for a performance for Queen Elizabeth II, Nolan
instructed the troupe to look at the box where she would be sitting. They were
horrified, Nolan recalled, and told him they couldn't do that.
pleaded with them, and they agreed to make a small gesture toward the box. After
the performance they met the queen.
Crowds have been enthusiastic because
"they see it's really very genuine," Nolan says. "It's not trick photography
like in the movies. You can see it on their faces and in what they
"They aren't Olympic gymnasts, although you would think they were.
Most people understand they're not superhuman. They have managed to do it
through dedication and self-confidence."
Nolan has learned some things
about himself during his association with the monks.
"A lot of us in life
set parameters for ourselves. These monks have just not set any boundaries," he
explains. "It's self-confidence without arrogance and just believing anything is
possible if you dedicate yourself to it."
Nolan thinks that touring the
United States and Europe has broadened the monks' experience. Many have learned
English. The monks travel with a tutor and are constantly asking the
English-speaking crew new words.
But it's not easy to gauge what the
monks think of the United States because "they really don't judge things much,
so it's very difficult to find what they do or don't like," Nolan
But some things are universal.
"They're young guys. So when
a really fast motorbike goes past the bus, it really turns their heads," Nolan
Copyright Ā 2003, South Florida
Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel