As a ballet based on a book that has been turned into a sculpture, Tree of Codes has an unusual heritage. Banished were the tight buns, the stiff tutus, the classical orchestra. This was contemporary ballet, and ponytails lassoed, gender was ambiguous and the music beat loud. With the music by Jamie xx, the visuals by Olafur Eliasson and the choreography by Wayne McGregor, Tree of Codes aims to be a multi-sensory experience, a coming together of art forms in an explosive hour long performance.
The source of inspiration for Tree of Codes is a sculpture by the same name, a work completed by Jonathan Safran Foer in 2010. Taking his favourite book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, Foer cut individual words out to form a new narrative, one that McGregor says ‘brilliantly hovers between words and spaces, surfaces and layers, pasts and futures’. It was this narrative that formed the basis for the whole production, each collaborator using the book to seek inspiration. Whilst McGregor aimed to choreograph the book’s pages, Jamie xx, in true conceptual style, created an algorithm that took shapes from the text and turned these into melodies – a computer programme literally ‘plays the pages’.
It is not until the third scene that we actually see the cast. Initially they appear like glow worms writhing in the jungle, just lights on a pitch black stage. Next, arms inserted into prism mirrors were used to create multi headed snakes, blossom – the viewer is left to interpret images and movement for themselves, something McGregor was keen to allow. And then they appear, as if naked and genderless, and the dancing begins. Contorting, twisting, manipulating their bodies to the beat of Jamie xx, the 15 strong cast, comprised of dancers from the Paris Ballet and McGregor’s own troupe, are incredible athletes. Their movement and energy was unabating and their skill staggering.
A barrage of fresh ideas in the first ten minutes and a couple of fantastic duets, however, made way for choreography that became increasingly repetitive. Whilst the variety in tempo and mood of Jamie xx’s soundtrack helped to keep momentum, after 30 of the short 65 minutes the whole affair began to feel somewhat relentless. Eliassen’s visuals are certainly very clever; his installations emphasise the layers in Schulz’s text, especially in his psychedelic use of mirrors, but like McGregor’s choreography, the novelty started to wear thin.
The lack of emotional pull, emphasised by the almost otherworldly dancing, was inevitably one cause for this lethargy. The conceptual took precedence over the human and without continuously new ideas, the effect was one of watching a very protracted edgy music video. The applause at the end was rapturous, but to me it seemed to be cheers for the relentless effort of the dancers rather than the effect of the production as a whole.