Tree of Codes review – Wayne McGregor's modern ballet fails to find heart

Arts Centre, Melbourne
In troubled times art gives us solace, but McGregor’s dazzling collaboration with Jamie xx, Olafur Eliasson and the Paris Opera Ballet lacks warmth

Tree of Codes opens with a magical world: a pitch-black stage with moving lights decked out on the costumes of unseen dancers.

It could be a starry constellation or fragments of a city as seen from an aeroplane at night, or a group of robots powered by a playful AI operating system.

Whatever it is, the opening piece of Tree of Codes enchants. The music by Jamie xx adds to the AI feel: the aural equivalent of tiny pinpoints of lights bouncing around the stage.

The next piece is also sweet and clever. Dancers line up in a row, giant blossoms obscuring their faces. Images, limbs and lights move out from inside the blossoms as they shift and open and close. Once again, the music, movement and light work together in an almost orchestral way. There are brain-bending hints of psychedelia.

Tree of Codes, which premiered in Australia on Wednesday night as part of the Melbourne festival, has collaboration and shape-shifting in its DNA.

Tree of Codes
At 75 minutes, the stage is constantly alive with movement, refracted light, evolving sets. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

The work is inspired by a short, strange book by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Everything is Illuminated. In this book, Safran Foer took another text, Bruno Schulz’s 1934 short story collection The Street of Crocodiles, and literally – with scissors – cut words out of the book, changing the text on each page you flipped to. In doing this, a new story was created.

The Olivier award-winning choreographer Wayne McGregor has gone even more meta with this, and created something new and strange out of Safran Foer’s experiment, in collaboration with xx, visual artist Olafur Eliasson and the Paris Opera Ballet, who have loaned two dancers - Lucie Fenwick and Julien Meyzindi – to the Melbourne show, with a cast rounded out by Company Wayne McGregor.

Jamie xx composed the score using an algorithm that turns the text into music, often to great effect, although some of music towards the end has echoes of Philip Glass – all the staccato pips and pops of strings and synths. I preferred the more sweeping, epic score of the earlier part of the show.

The dancers, mostly wearing unobtrusive nude costumes, are flawless. The piece runs at 75 minutes without interval and without pause, and the stage is constantly alive with movement, refracted light and evolving sets.

Tree of Codes
‘There is something architectural about the shapes the dancers make – fluid then freezing into sublime patterns.’ Photograph: Joel Chester Fildes

McGregor has said his biggest influence is architecture, and there is something architectural about the shapes the dancers make – fluid then freezing into sublime patterns.

But after the first two promising opening sequences, the rest of the work fails to live up to its early daring.

Parts of it had a nightclub feel: this could be thanks to associations with Jamie xx’s work in his band the xx, and partly due to the alternately dark and sweeping lights.

And despite the dancers’ technical perfection (or perhaps because of it), they can seem too removed from the audience as they move behind or are distorted by Eliasson’s spectacular set.

There was something cold about the performance: it failed to emotionally have it.

The sold-out crowd gave it a standing ovation – but while I was also dazzled, this diamond-cut precise work lacked warmth and heart.

In troubled times art gives us solace, but I did not find that solace here.

Tree of Codes is at Arts Centre Melbourne until 21 October, as part of Melbourne festival


Brigid Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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