Jonathan Holloway has announced his first festival highlight: a “miraculous” collision of ballet, visual art and electro-pop.

Melbourne Festival Artistic Director Jonathan Holloway was at the premiere of Tree of Codes at the 2015 Manchester International Festival, and before he had even left the theatre he had called producers to say that he wanted it for Melbourne.

In the first reveal of the 2017 programme, Melbourne Festival today announced that the extraordinary dance event will be coming to Melbourne for an exclusive, six-performance season.

Tree of Codes. Photography © Joel Chester Fildes

Tree of Codes is a collaboration between British choreographer Wayne McGregor, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson and UK musician Jamie xx. It is performed by six dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet and nine from Company Wayne McGregor.

It was inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s enigmatic book-sculpture of the same name, which he famously created by carving up Bruno Schulz’s book The Street of Crocodiles. For the performance piece, Eliasson created breathtaking lighting and visual effects, Jamie xx used an algorithm to turn shapes and spaces from the book into melodies, while McGregor created a dance for each of the book’s 134 pages.

All three of the collaborators are internationally renowned. McGregor – whose work has been performed by the Australian Ballet – is known for his trailblazing, high-speed, often cerebral contemporary ballet choreography. As well as running his own company, he is Resident Choreographer at London’s Royal Ballet who will perform his full-length ballet Woolf Works in Brisbane later this month.

Eliasson is known for his monumental installations including The Weather Project at London’s Tate Modern in 2003 for which he created a mirrored environment where visitors basked under a fake sun, and the 2008 New York City Waterfalls public art project for which he created four massive waterfalls at key New York sites including the Brooklyn Bridge.

Jamie xx is a member of Mercury Prize-winning English indie band The xx and has worked as a remixer and producer for pop artists of the likes of Drake and Alicia Keys.

Since premiering in Manchester in 2015, Tree of Codes has been seen in New York, London, Aarhus in Denmark and Paris.

Tree of Codes is the perfect festival event: massively more than the sum of its parts, beautiful and uplifting, appealing to all audiences, and delivered with the energy that can only be released by the creative collision of incredible forces,” said Holloway, announcing the event.

Speaking to Limelight, Holloway says: “I saw it at the first performance in Manchester in July two years ago. I was in Europe to see a variety of festival shows and I went to see that and it was just absolutely incredible. It was one of those moments where you sit there and think, ‘this is a phenomenon’.”

“You could sit there in silence and just watch Olafur Eliasson’s set designs and be at the best visual arts event you’d ever been at, or you could just listen to Jamie xx’s music but together it really does go beyond the sum of its parts.”

Holloway says that the audience at the performance he saw was wildly diverse, aged 17 to 70. “I was sat next to a 60-year old woman from Wythenshaw [south of Manchester]. At the end, everybody stood up and starting cheering and applauding, including her – all except me. I sat there on my phone. She said to me, ‘didn’t you enjoy it?’ I said, ‘I’m booking it!’ recalls Holloway.

He describes the work as “a rare collaboration without any form of compromise” between the artists involved. “Except that they are all extraordinary artists, it’s a long bow that’s drawn from the beginning of the project to the end, and for me the piece is just “miraculous”.

Tree of Codes has received numerous rave reviews, with The Independent in the UK describing it as “an extraordinary new ballet … fecund with human creativity”, saying: “Sometimes five stars are not enough.”

However, a few critics had reservations. The New York Times described Eliasson’s set and lighting effects as “often jaw-dropping” but felt that the work is “all wow and no substance”, while The Guardian said it was “all action, and no consequence” despite finding much of it dazzling.

“It didn’t divide audiences,” says Holloway. “It’s united audiences everywhere it’s gone. What it has done is divide dance critics from everyone else. Other reviewers who had seen it with the openness of ‘we are coming to an event’ have responded with raves.”

“Dance critics looking for something purer have, in a way, been overwhelmed by the music and visuals, which is understandable. None of the three artforms stays pure within it – and that to me is what is so exciting,” says Holloway.

“What has been interesting is it’s been performed now in five cities – this will be the sixth – and the response of audiences in each place has been ecstatic.”


Tree of Codes plays at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, October 17 – 2. Tickets go on sale on Friday June 17 at 5pm

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