★★★½☆ Fabulous dancing and stunning staging and yet…

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
October 17, 2017

Tree of Codes looks sensational. The uber-kinetic dancing is dazzling. The staging with its intriguing use of doubling and infinite reflections in mirrored backdrops, its striking geometric shapes and its seductive play of light, looks a million dollars. And yet. And yet. Thrilling though much of it is, there is little to connect with emotionally beneath its flashy surface, little that it seems to be saying.

Tree of Codes. Photograph © Stephanie Berger

A collaboration between British choreographer Wayne McGregor, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson and UK musician Jamie xx, Tree of Codes premiered in Manchester in 2015 and has since toured to London, New York and Denmark.

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

Writing in the programme, McGregor says: “The physical laguage uses the text as a primary point of departure. Its meaning, its feeling, its organisation on the page, the negatvie spaces between the words and the layer upon layer of ideas all become open for new interpretations. The choreography attempts to ingest these generative moment sinto a viceral experience, charged with a true emotional temperature.”

Without knowing this, you’d be hard-pressed to recognise the ideas behind the genesis of the work. The concept of an absence or something missing is there in the beautiful opening sequence, performed in darkness to bright, joyous music, in which fairy lights gleam brightly like fireflies or stars as they whir around the space, attached to the bodies of dancers we cannot see.

Tree of Codes. Photograph © Zan Wimberley

From there the 14 dancers – 11 from McGregor’s own company Company Wayne McGregor, two from Paris Opera Ballet, and guest artist Mara Galeazzi (a former principal with The Royal Ballet who danced in the Royal’s recent Brisbane season of Woolf Works) – power through the high-speed work.

Many of McGregor’s choroegraphic trademarks are there – the hyperextensions, the slicing legs, the sinously curving backs, the inventive pas de deux and trios, with twisting, whipping, slightly off-kilter lifts and turns. The dancers perform at a dizzy speed and they all look divine, whether dancing in bare feet, ballet shoes or on pointe.

There are also some wonderful visual effects: large, shiny flowerheads that turn into kaleidoscopes when arms are thrust through them, two large circular cut-out windows that spin to reveal vibrant colours behind them, multi-layered reflections of dancers with occasional reflections of the audience suddenly appearing behind them, a spotlight that plays across the auditorium.

Performed in semi-darkness for much of the time, the costuming moves from skimpy flesh-coloured outfits initially to the introduction of black leotards and then gradually more colour – mustard yellows, greens and red.

Tree of Codes. Photograph © Ravi Deepres

The visceral music is richly melodic and complex with lyrical piano solos, ambient vocals and thumping percussive beats. At times it’s almost overwhelming but knows when to pull back to something gentler.

So, Tree of Codes is a visual and aural sensation. You marvel at the dancing, and the stamina of the extrarordinary dancers, but where McGregor’s Woolf Works was heartbreakingly poignant, here you are left unmoved emotionally.


Tree of Codes plays in the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival until October 21.

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