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Shaolin Monks

Shaolin monks bring true kung fu to South Florida

By Clifford Pugh
Houston Chronicle

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.

"It's 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 called Nolan.

Nolan was intrigued. As a kid he had watched Kung Fu, a 1970s TV show in which David Carradine portrayed a Shaolin monk in the American West.

"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 fu.

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.

"The wheel of life depicts one of the Buddhist symbols and the belief that life continues to revolve [even when bad things happen]," Nolan says.

The production 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 arts.

"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 explosive performances.

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,'" Nolan recounts.

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 says.

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.

Nolan 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 do.

"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 says.

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 says.

Copyright Ā 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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