- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

There may not seem much connection between the Shaolin Warriors of China, the high-flying group of martial artists appearing at Lisner Auditorium this weekend, and the craze for the bunny hug that swept the dance halls of this country early in the 20th century.

Both, however, had their roots in man’s eternal fascination with animals and their movements. People who move for fun, art or ritual — dancers, acrobats, holy men — have long been attracted to the striking way animals move, attack and defend themselves.

In relatively recent times American Indians had buffalo dances, pawing the ground in imitation of an angry buffalo; African slaves brought animal dances to this country, that later morphed into popular ballroom dances: the turkey trot, grizzly bear, kangaroo hop, duck waddle; Martha Graham taught her dancers a rippling cat exercise; Merce Cunningham has said he finds inspiration from the close observation of animals.

These are latter day manifestations compared to the ancient traditions of the Shaolin Warriors.

Around A.D. 540 a Buddhist priest from India, visiting China, found that the monks at the Shaolin temple were extremely weak from sitting at their desks all day and so were at risk from marauding bands. He developed exercises for the monks based on the attack and defense movements of animals such as the tiger, deer, leopard, cobra, and even the imaginary moves of dragons.

From this beginning sprang the many styles of martial arts including karate and the gentler form of tai chi.

Fast forward to today and you see its present day incarnations in films such as the work of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li; “The Matrix” and its sequels; and the remarkable success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won four.

Unique among this group are the priests from the Shaolin temple with their 1,500 year-old tradition of martial arts. Shaolin Warriors is the name given to the 22-member traveling unit of high-flying priests chosen from the 200-member temple.

Shi Yanying, a 21-year-old priest with the company, says they are monks first and foremost who also happen to tour. There is a certain tension between their devout meditations and the glitter of public performance before vast audiences. But the Shaolin way has always embraced the quiet centeredness of meditation and the exhilarating, often painful demands of martial arts. To their way of thinking, one complements and sustains the other.

Speaking through a translator, Mr. Shi says, “We meditate every day and sometimes we feel tired and physically weak after that concentration, so we need to practice martial arts to recover, to have more energy. But the meditation makes us calm and have better focus on our martial practice.”

Back in China, Mr. Shi says, “We get up at the first light and meditate for an hour. Then we practice our martial arts training for about seven hours and have another meditation in the evening in our temple. During our tours we have a very tight schedule. So I have a meditation in the morning, then a shorter martial arts period and then a break before the show.”

The young monk says that everyone on stage is a real monk or a monk in training. Two young boys are part of the tour. One is 8, the other 9. Children are first admitted into training when they turn 6 or 7.

“The Shaolin master selects the good boys, the ones who are most interested, and teaches them Shaolin kung fu,” Mr. Shi says. “The unique part of Shaolin compared to other types of Chinese martial arts is its total integration with Buddhist Zen.”

Not only is the form enticing to young boys, but Mr. Shi says monks can and do continue the Shaolin way for their entire lives, following the same lengthy daily routine into their 60s and 70s. “Shaolin has different styles,” he explains, “and monks can do what’s appropriate for their age until they die.”

In the “Matrix” films and TV series some of the dazzling moves are shown in slow motion; in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” the stirring choreography owed a lot to brilliant camera work that showed a male warrior (and female warriors, a very un-Shaolin concept) whirling through space over rooftops and engaging in battle perched on the top of swaying bamboo trees.

In spite of, or quite possibly because of, the lack of these special effects, the Shaolin Warriors have found a fervent audience in this country. They are flesh and blood acrobats, leaping and vaulting and slashing in front of us in real time, with no slow-motion effects to exaggerate their remarkable skill.

This tour is their third in the last four years. They are playing in 30 cities to mostly sold-out audiences. The Washington Performing Arts Society is presenting them here for the second time.

When I caught the show last winter in New York City’s huge Beacon Theater, the place was packed. Little publicity had preceded them, but fans of kung fu, tae kwan do, karate, “The Matrix,” Bruce Lee, “Crouching Tiger” and yours truly, a tai chi student, had an eye-filling evening of ancient legends, ritual ceremonies and wondrous acrobatics.

WHAT: Shaolin Warriors

WHEN: Tomorrow at 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.

WHERE: Lisner Auditorium

TICKETS: $25 to $45 (children 6 to 12, $12)

PHONE: 202/785-9727

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