Decoding the Phantasmagoria of Wayne McGregor’s “Tree of Codes”

“Tree of Codes” runs at the Park Avenue Armory in New York through 14, 15, 17, 18, 19 and 21.
(Courtesy Joel Chester)

Almost one century ago, Fernard Leger explored, by way of aesthetics, the notion of the kinetic in the everyday life, starring machines for dancers and women for automatons, in his kaleidoscopic collage of images, “Ballet Mécanique” (1924), a film with no scenario. It is with similar veins and arteries to this work, that “Tree of Codes” springs to life.

Commissioned by the Manchester International Festival and world premiered at the Opera House in Manchester earlier this summer, Wayne McGregor’s full-length contemporary ballet “Tree of Codes” is a phantasmagorical total art, a Gesamtkunstwerk of the 21st century that took over two years to create. Starring soloists and dancers from the world’s oldest ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet, and from the Company Wayne McGregor (formerly Random Dance), with the set designed by Olafur Eliasson and the score composed by Jamie XX, “Tree of Codes” is inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2010 novel-cum-object d’art of the same title, which is based on Bruno Schultz’s novel, The Street of Crocodiles (1934).

The manifold layers of which this ballet consists sparked a great deal of controversy as to whether it had any narrative at all and why were the dancers’ skills not better exploited. McGregor’s first encounter with Schultz’s novel was in 1992, when Simon McBurney’s experimental Théâtre Complicité staged an adaptation. It was eight years later, however, when he had the epiphany to use Foer’s deconstructed version of the novel as the starting point of his production. One then recalls Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville who, in the early 1960s, after reading William Grey Walter’s “The Living Brain,” created “Dreamachine,” a stroboscopic kinetic sculpture that alters the brain’s electrical oscillations.

Far beyond artists such as Georgia Russell and Jack Milroy who create ornaments by cutting out the pages of books, Tristan Tzara’s cut-up poems and William Bourroughs’ fold-in texts, Foer thought of the book as both a body and space. With his poetic imagination, he joined together the literary and sculptural cut-up techniques, and more articulately than a book that has been chewed by a parrot, he chopped out words from the pages of Schultz’s novel in order to carve his very own.

As Eliasson’s work is governed by spatial manipulations, perspectival shifts and new experiences of reality, likewise, in Foer’s book, words jump from one page to another, with the perforated pages, like the layers of a diorama, opening up portals to an altered narrative of the one from which they originally came, inviting readers to see through them and offering myriad ways of reading, seeing and sensing it.

Using this as a foundation for the sets made much sense to Eliasson, who is known for creating spaces within spaces, given also that this was not the first time he designed for the stage. In 2003, although it was only by chance, his “Weather Project” functioned as the stage set to Merce Cunningham’s “Anniversary Vents” performance at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. However, in 2007, he was commissioned to create the spatial concept for Hans Werner Henze’s opera “Phaedra” in Berlin, which featured a mirror like the one in “Tree of Codes,” where we see ourselves seeing and which spans the entire stage, reflecting the audience whilst it becomes part of the spectacle, unifying the observers and the observed as if by magic.

Jamie XX’s hypnotic and pulsating musical assemblage was made with the use of an algorithm that somehow reproduced the words and the spaces in between them by way of rhythm and structure. Now, to use Foer’s book as food for choreographic thought was even more challenging. Think of Butoh founder, Tatsumi Hijikata, who in the 1960s invented the choreographic language known as, Butoh-Fu, where spoken text was used as a stimulus for his dancers during the choreographic process of his surreal spectacles. In the same fashion, McGregor’s dancers were asked to create a dance sequence for each page of the book by visualising and physicalizing the words. Over the course of several months and with numerous intervals, they have created a vast amount of material that they had to perform in the studio for one last time before McGregor was to select sections to stitch together as a tapestry, and add a yet further deconstructive narrative for the final choreography to come into place.

The house lights dim slowly to blackout, and then the invisible dancers pierce through the darkness. As they move in unison, carrying lights pinned on to their costumes, they form a series of constellations, a luminous anagram. One recalls Wilhelm Braune and Otto Fischer, who in 1895 experimented with the human walk in different ways than Étienne-Jules Marey: they dressed a man entirely in black and replaced the thin white lines with light bulbs on to his limbs and head in order to reveal the laws of motion in exact detail, as a form of corporal automatic writing. Yet another part cast in the dark is when Eliasson’s kaleidoscopic props appear hovering off the ground, through which the dancers’ arms appear with their hand movements multiplying in the mirrors as the light comes from the other end.

The gaped mirror that commands the stage folds slightly in the middle like a cockleshell, from where the Paris Opera’s étoile Marie-Agnès Gillot, emerges like Aphrodite in all her grace and as if not of that earth. Possessed of discipline and strength in a intimate duet with sujet Julien Meyzindi, her lean curves and the fine lines of her long limbs whirling and contorting round him are reflected in the backdrop mirrors, and together with Jamie XX’s mechanical score, turn the stage in to a life-size ballerina music box.

Jérémie Belingard, also an étoile, dances a powerful solo against infinity mirrors, with the successive stages of his primitive and athletic movements recalling Georges Demenÿ in Marey’s chronophotographic images. Fukiko Takase’s undulating and animalistic moves as she morphs from the floor to impossible standing positions, and the fluid hyperextended limbs of quadrille Lucie Fenwick in a sensual duet with Louis McMiller, add further tones to the palette of the otherworldly.

Layer after layer, the optical games continue to amuse, with dancers and sets in constant flux, keeping one’s senses alert at all times. Similar to the pictorial genre of the backlit transparent pictures from around 1780, the coloured screens of the set are illuminated from behind. With every single slight move of the mirrors and rotating discs casting additional images that, like the two-way and three-way vertical montage technique of the seventeenth century, are visible or not depending on the spectator’s viewing angle.

The changing direction and intensity of light intersecting the coloured screens of the set splits our vision, allowing only fragments of the dancers to come into view as they dissolve under our eyelids each time we flicker, echoing Schulz’s words: “pages, when rubbed, reveal plumes of color […] fragments of rainbow suddenly danced on the wallpaper.” Paired dancers are positioned at certain distances to obscure other pairs of dancers who stand behind a semi-reflective, translucent coloured screen.

Each duet is danced simultaneously to create an ensemble that reflects the depth perception of pairs of overlapping cues in pictorial displays. These are synchronized with giant, rotating, and overlapping fluorescent coloured discs, with circular light projections intervening and orchestrating an optical dance, leaving the audience’s visual mechanisms of near-far percepts lost in wonder. You do not know where to look at; you do not know where you are.

“Tree of Codes” is a world where optical wonders open up doors to the unexpected. The enchanted enigma of appearances and disappearances, the luminous processions and translucent shadows of the dancers, the spatial depths and transformations with the mirrors and light playing tricks, disorient and reposition the audience, if not physically then at least in their visual perception. All this highlights that this work is more about optics and the kinetic than about dance per se. Even the collaborators are portrayed in the program with an optically anamorphic image, as if seen through a distorting mirror, recalling the shadows cast by the optical toys known as, jouets séditieux.

Even though this spectacle has brought together virtuosos from different disciplines, there is no doubt that some of its components are more eye-catching and memorable than others. But as an all-embracing art form, it would be wrong to rank these components as though it were a contest. “Tree of Codes” is to be experienced in its totality, with its alchemical explosion producing a single new entity. To the same degree as the book, the contemporary ballet “Tree of Codes” comprises as many layers as interpretations, with a narrative that is constantly distorting over time and through each spectator’s eyes and imagination. Unlike a traditional theatre piece that follows a plot and unlike a conventional ballet where the skills of dancers are there to impress, “Tree of Codes” is an adventure into which you are thrown before you know it and a whimsical experience that you won’t regret having.

“Tree of Codes” runs at the Park Avenue Armory in New York through 14, 15, 17, 18, 19 (matinée and evening) and 21 (matinée and evening) September 2015. Touring in Miami, Paris and London in 2016-2017.