Tree of Codes: Dance review by Helen Shaw
The really astonishing part of Tree of Codes comes surprisingly far into the evening. Not that the makers hadn't already been trying to make us marvel: in the prologue, light-suited constellation-creatures had wriggled in the dark; then Olafur Eliasson's set had turned the stage into an elegant funhouse, where huge two-way mirrors created illusions of infinity and transparency. Dancers (from Wayne McGregor's own company and the Paris Opera Ballet) had been winding sinuously about in nude briefs and bikinis for what felt like a long time—the effect was inert but pleasant, rather like looking at a tamer Garden of Earthly Delights.
Then, suddenly, everything reorganized itself. Molecules snapped to attention and—despite all the lighting effects we'd seen so far—we were finally in the presence of actual electricity. The Paris Opera Ballet star Marie-Agnès Gillot was dancing, and now McGregor's movement seemed thrilling again—his club-groove inflected dance vocabulary was alive at last with transgression and humor. When she was doing it, it had jouissance.
Tree of Codes is a transplant from the Manchester International Festival, a “big thinking” project from Alex Poots, who put together the superstars Eliasson, McGregor and electronic music uber-producer Jamie xx. The eponymous inspiration was Jonathan Safran Foer's cut-up artwork, a new story made by physically slicing words out of Bruno Schulz's book The Street of Crocodiles. In the music, the inspiration led to layering and complexity; in the visual environment it spurred Eliasson to create illusory tunnels and games with depth onstage—when the giant mirrors descend, they turn the space into a mise en abyme, so we seem to be seeing endless rows of dancers stretching into the black beyond. (Eliasson also seems to have been meditating on the “audience as reader:” a spotlight roams the seats, and we sometimes watch the dancers through massive circular panes.)
The inspiration did not, though, call quite as much from McGregor. The question of musicality seems passé in this environment, as does mise en scène—with such astonishing visual elements using the space, it was too much for the choreographer to master it also. And pulsing "dance" music did not, in this case, make interesting dance music. Though we may feel our own attraction to it operating, McGregor reacts to the varied, propulsive score with limited invention: There are kicks that are deliberately effortful, the dancer hurling the leg up and over the hip joint, and occasional struggles that seem like tantrums in the middle of a partnering move.
Yet it takes Gillot to show us how these gestures are actually violent. Gillot's body is a weird wonder: she is tall enough to pose a threat, she's bony as a colt, and (bizarrely for a star ballerina) she hunches. Her smooth black hair and amused, strong face make it seem like a young Anjelica Huston has suddenly taken up ballet—there's a cool in Gillot that is deliciously 70s. Maybe that's why she adds so incalculably much to the evening. Everything else in Tree of Codes is so strenuously up-to-date and hip, but she's there showing us that the old ways are best.—Helen Shaw
Choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Music by Jamie xx. Set and lighting concepts by Olafur Eliasson. 1hr 20mins. No intermission.