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Form & Content

A book, physically cut from the pages of another, is the inspiration behind Wayne McGregor’s “Tree of Codes.” Much like the Jonathan Safran Foer book with which it shares its title, McGregor’s work is an experiment in the arrangement of form and content. In collaboration with Jamie xx and artist Olafur Eliasson, who conceived the incredible stage design for “Tree of Codes,” these three artists have created a complex, multi-sensory work of dance and design that turns the act of viewing upon its head.


Company Wayne McGregor/Paris Opera Ballet: “Tree of Codes”


Sadler's Wells, London, UK, March 4-11, 2017


Rachel Elderkin

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In the pitch darkness the encompassing sound of Jamie xx’s whirring score immediately immerses its audience into “Tree of Codes’” captivating world. Yet oddly, given the brilliance of the rest of this work, the opening moments are less than convincing. A shifting constellation of lights flit about the stage, attached to the costumes of the dancers, but the visual result does not quite embody its intention. The dancers’ fluid movement is lost in the darkness and instead of producing intriguing patterns and formations the floating lights appear random and disconnected.

It is however a small digression from the visual feast that this work, as a whole, proffers. In a clever twist of stage design the natural viewpoint of the auditorium is reflected back upon the audience. Mirrors and lights reflect the action on stage, offering multiple viewpoints of the same movement and, in a delighting and ingenious trick of theatre, the audience even catch a glimpse of themselves gazing upon the dancers. Like Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère or Mary Cassatt’s In the Loge, the viewer becomes the viewed, McGregor throwing the idea of watching and being watched into multiple perspectives.

“Tree of Codes” is performed by dancers from both Company Wayne McGregor and the Paris Opera Ballet. Technically, it’s a thrilling combination. The rapid, complex movement vocabulary is unerringly clean and precise, clear lines and endless extensions woven into a supple, articulate movement language, typically McGregor.

Choreographically, McGregor throws the kitchen sink at this work. Duets, trios and company work keep the structure varied and engaging while phrases, split between clusters of dancers, are re-partnered and repeated, a visual complement to the themes of mirroring and reflection that run through the piece.

In one of its most effective moments we watch, through a gauze screen, two dancers in casual dress mirroring the movements of a duo ‘on-stage’. It hints at the idea of rehearsal and performance, first-cast and understudy, and, fittingly, of what is reflection and what is reality.

The multitude of steps and the intricacy of the movement is almost overwhelming, but it all adds to the multi-sensory aspect of “Tree of Codes.” Watching the dancers you are pulled along by the relentless drive of their movement, energised by their performance. As the work grows more complex in movement and visual design, the colours of the costumes and lights switch from their natural palette to bold block colours that enliven the work in line with its rising energy.

With its multiple, mirrored viewpoints and phrases scattered between dancers, “Tree of Codes” could easily become chaotic. Yet somehow this work has been cut and structured in a way that offers its audience scope for multiple readings and which, aesthetically, provides a feast for the senses. Even without any knowledge of the content of Foer’s book this aspect at least feels intrinsically connected.

As “Tree of Codes” draws to a close you simply feel stunned; exhausted by the sensory overload, the lights, colours and energy of the movement. It’s a dazzling, exhilarating dance work but, most importantly, it brings contemporary ballet in line with the modern day. With Eliasson’s edgy designs and Jamie xx’s pulsating score, “Tree of Codes” is a dance work of its time. Refreshingly, McGregor shows that movement doesn’t need to be forsaken at the expense of modernity. Here, a technical, classical movement language is living and breathing with the life of today.

Rachel Elderkin

Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dance artist and writer based in London. She is a contributor to The Stage and a member of the UK's Critics' Circle. She has previously written for publications including Fjord Review, Exeunt, British Theatre Guide,, the Skinny (Scotland) and LeftLion (Nottingham) where she was Art Editor.



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