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Dance Review: Tree of Codes with Company Wayne McGregor and the Paris Opera Ballet

Dance Review: Tree of Codes with Company Wayne McGregor and the Paris Opera Ballet

Wayne McGregor, Olafur Eliasson & Jamie xx have joined forces to create a multi-sensory dance masterpiece.

The audience is buzzing with excitement, waiting eagerly for the show to begin. Something that sounds almost like applause turns into a rhythmic, fast-paced soundtrack of tumbling beats, and the stage goes dark. Three dancers appear, but not as you might expect. They are invisible, dressed in black except for a series of tiny lights outlining their limbs and torso. As they start to move, it's like watching stars swirling in the night sky. Slowly, more dancers fill the stage with lights; every step, every movement, every pause creating glowing constellations in the darkness. This magical, goosebump-inducing spectacle is the opening to the remarkable Tree of Codes, a collaboration between three artists who are clearly at the top of their game.

The idea for this work came from author Jonathan Safran Foer's book of the same name, a story he created by cutting down the text of his own favourite book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. The result was a sculptural work as much as it is literary, (the pages of Tree of Codes are a series of different die-cuts), and it was this multi-dimensional vision that served as inspiration for choreographer Wayne McGregor. There are, as he has described when discussing Tree of Codes, "layer upon layer of ideas" within the text that are "open for new interpretations." His collaboration with visual artist Olafur Eliasson and celebrated musician/composer/producer Jamie xx (of the band The xx) has led to a work that transcends any ordinary dance performance, instead exploring every facet of artistic expression, the soundtrack, set design and lighting just as integral as the choreography.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Tree of Codes’ is a beautiful architectural object. It’s very tactile - it almost has a body.
— Wayne McGregor, Director & Choreographer

There is, as we see in the opening sequence, a juxtaposition of the ethereal and the electronic. There are moments of absolute stillness as well as frenzied activity, and as the dancers move seamlessly from solo to pas de deux and pas de trois, we get a real sense of the many layers of meaning behind this piece. Particularly beautiful are the ever-changing levels - there are lifts and turns at the same time as floor work, highs and lows and changing speeds. With the only visuals the tiny glowing lights, it is mesmerising. As the lights and the dancers start to fade away and leave the stage, we enter the next phase, an eerie line of mirrored shapes through which the dancers push and contort their hands. The result, a snaking line of hundreds of reflected limbs, is almost alien, but incredibly effective, the dancers' fingers pulling the audience in to their world.

olafur-eliasson-tree-of-codes.jpg
Photographs by Joel Chester Fildes

Photographs by Joel Chester Fildes

It is at this point that we switch into a more organic, raw phase of the work. The fairy lights are gone and the dancers are in minimal, nude body wear. Every muscle can be seen working in incredible fluidity, and it is now that we see just how talented this 14-strong cast really are. Dancers from Company Wayne McGregor collide with Lucie Fenwick and Julian Meyzindi of Paris Opera Ballet (home to Energetiks ambassador Bianca Scudamore), and the technical mastery of the entire cast is phenomenal. McGregor's style (he is known for dynamic, isolated movements alongside elongated, fluid extensions) is second nature to these dancers, who move in perfect harmony through moments of intricacy, tension, repetition and stillness. There is one breathtaking moment where the cast suddenly perform a port de bras sequence en masse, and a spotlight moves through the audience. Eliasson's lighting here is important; it prompts the audience into self-awareness again, and we start to internalise the atmosphere on the stage.

Photograph by Joel Chester Fildes

Photograph by Joel Chester Fildes

Photograph by Ravi Deepres

Photograph by Ravi Deepres

Photograph by Ravi Deepres

Photograph by Ravi Deepres

It is clear that Eliasson's lighting and set design are fundamental to the work; as we progress, the lines between the set pieces and the dancers become blurred as they all start to overlap. The use of mirrors is particularly effective - there is a beautiful section where a two-way mirrored wall segments the front and back halves of the stage, and the dancers in front of the mirror are reflected in the back, whilst we can also see the dancers behind. The result is a mind-bending series of pas de deux that both choreographically and visually reflect, repeat and reverse each other to incredible effect. At this point the dancers are now wearing colourful (but still minimal) dance wear and we start to see the kaleidescopic visuals this work has been celebrated for.

Photograph Stephanie Berger

Photograph Stephanie Berger

It is amazing too, just how in sync the dancers are with Jamie xx's music. There are many instances where the dancers bodies make audible contact with one another, adding layers to the pulsing heartbeat of the soundtrack, the slapping noises almost primal in their energy. Every step is perfectly in harmony with the music behind it, a result of the organic creative process between choreographer and composer (as opposed to choreographing to existing music). There is a balance between the modernity of the music - certain sections have a definite nightclub vibe - and the aforementioned primal energy of the beat. There are vocals too at times, which create a haunting, ethereal space for some of McGregor's more subdued choreography, in particular some of the solo moments and the various pas de deux performed en pointe.  

“The reaction I had to [the book] was really visceral. It suddenly sparked all these ideas: I could immediately see patterns and rhythms in it, even melodies. Instantly.”
— Jamie xx, Composer

Arguably the most exciting moment of the 75 minute spectacle is the final section, where the music, visuals and choreography reach a peak. The final set piece, a series of windows with two huge rotating circular mirrors, creates new shapes around the dancers, at the same time casting reflections and rotating lights around the audience. It is as though you are inside a disco ball. There is almost a frenzy of movement, the dancers spinning and turning through moments of fast-paced unison and partner work, as the music reaches a climax. You can't help but think of how much energy is required from this cast, who are still demonstrating near-perfect technique despite the demanding nature of McGregor's choreography and the length of the work.

Photograph by Joel Chester Fildes

Photograph by Joel Chester Fildes

It seems as though every concept explored within this show gets bigger and more colourful each time it is played with. There is a clear progression from beginning to end, as though dimensions are constantly added like the pages in the book it is based on. For the audience, we are swept along on a wave of colour and sound right up until the rhythm dies away, the dancers walk off the stage, and the goosebumps return. You find yourself wishing that you could immediately watch it again, from a different vantage point, knowing that visually you would have a completely new experience based on the movement of the incredible set. There is only one word that sums up the feeling from the audience at the end: Wow. We can only hope that the dance world continues to foster artistic collaborations such as this, welcoming a new era in contemporary dance and more works like Tree of Codes that appeal to a huge audience of music, art and dance lovers.

If you missed the show, there are plans for it to come to Sydney very soon. For details on all of Company Wayne McGregor's upcoming shows click here.

Header image and other imagery used with kind permission of Stephanie Berger. Images by Ravi Deepres and Joel Chester Fildes used with kind permission of Studio Wayne McGregor.

Review by Emily Newton-Smith

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