Tree of Codes review – visual wizardry and pizzazz in sexy modern ballet

Opera House, Manchester

Choreographer Wayne McGregor and artist Olafur Eliasson adapt Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Tree of Codes into a superficially spectacular multimedia event for the Manchester international festival

It was only by an accident of scheduling that Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project ended up as the visual backdrop to the Merce Cunningham Event, performed at the Tate Modern in 2003. As serendipitous as it was, however, the setting worked a magical chemistry with the dance, as the cosmic sorcery of Eliasson’s giant sun created a glowing, unsettling atmosphere for both audience and performers to inhabit. Since then, I’ve wondered what Eliasson would do if he was commissioned to create a stage design for dance. Now Manchester International festival has obliged, by uniting him with Wayne McGregor for the multimedia piece Tree of Codes.

There seems to be a lot more technology and pizzazz here than at the Tate show. Eliasson has orchestrated a complex system of mirrors, scrims and light that reinvent the performance space, generating multiple reflections of the dancers, throwing images of the audience back on themselves. Windows and doorways open up to create worlds within the stage, coloured lights revolve like orbiting planets.

Tree of Codes
Tree of Codes. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The inspiration for this visual wizardry is the 2010 book by Jonathan Safran Foer, from which the production also takes its title. Tree of Codes was “written” in response to the book The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schultz. Rather than rewriting the original text, Foer literally carved out his own version of it, cutting holes in every page and leaving isolated words, phrases and empty gaps to reconnect in their own poetic dance.

Just as Eliasson reflects Foer’s deconstructed text with the disorienting effects of his design, much of McGregor’s choreography hovers within a strangely ambiguous space. McGregor has his 15 performers dancing with their own reflections, or reduced to ghosts, their bodies made visible only by the lights that glimmer from their costumes. He deliberately fragments the choreography so that it jump cuts between clusters of propulsive, closely twined movement and small shards of narrative. We see a couple tussling, as if competing for light and air; a woman trying to shuck off her partner’s protective embrace – yet we can only guess at the stories that move them.

McGregor’s choreography comes saturated with small clever detail and an intriguing layering of classical and contemporary styles. (The cast combines dancers from his own company, Random Dance, with members of the Paris Opera Ballet.) Yet for all its polish, it is disappointing how few dance images stand out and how few linger on in the memory. Part of the problem may be the episodic nature of the choreography, which means there is no overarching structure to draw us in: but a more fundamental issue is that it has only a fuzzily intermittent chemistry with its accompanying score.

Jamie xx clearly had fun composing the music for this production, experimenting with trancy vocals, drifting strings, electronica and drums. The cumulative effect, however, is intelligent muzak: pleasant to listen to, but emotionally and stylistically uncommitted. It is striking that the most exciting section of the evening comes when Jamie xx drills his music down to fierce percussive cadenza that raises the pulse of the dancing and adds visceral urgency to Eliasson’s climactic whirl of mirrors and light.

Tree of Codes – a sexy, sophisticated and, above all, inclusive hybrid of forms – is the perfect festival event. But it is superficially spectacular rather than stirring, and as dance it falls a long way short of the McGregor’s excellent best. I’m left feeling impatient for a time when he and Eliasson will be reunited on a project that will explore the depths of both their talents.


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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