Tree of Codes

Lynne Lancaster

One of the major headline events of the Sydney Festival proves a trifle disappointing.
Tree of Codes

Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Sorry readers but I was disappointed in Tree of Codes, one of the signature shows of this year’s Sydney Festival. But with three major names responsible for the dance, music and set presentation of the production in Wayne McGregor, Jamie xx and Olafur Eliasson respectively, there are probably as many different audiences, each with their own knowledge base and each with their own take on the piece.

The work is inspired by a short, strange book by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, in which the writer took another text, Bruno Schulz’s 1934 short story collection The Street of Crocodiles, and literally – with scissors – cut words out of the book, changing the text on each page you flipped to. In doing this, a new story was created, leading to this new dance work.

UK artist Jamie xx composed the score using an algorithm that turns the text into music, with echoes perhaps of Philip Glass as it beeps, pumps, pounds, hums, throbs, clicks and crackles. At times the audience is assaulted by the noise level and the rumbling deep bass. It also features a classical piano solo, thumping electronic beats, and atmospheric vocalisations.

The work begins with dancers in black costumes strewn with lights. Collectively they resemble a swirling starry night sky, a rather enchanting effect but it went on too long. One attends the theatre to see dancers dancing not endlessly undulating pinpoints of light.

For the next section, the cast line up in a row, images of giant blossoms obscuring their faces. Assorted forms, lights and parts of limbs extend from inside the blossoms as they move, unfold and close.

The dancers of Company Wayne McGregor from the UK are incredibly fluent and athletic and impress with their stamina during this incredibly demanding, relentlessly driven work. The dancers are mostly in skin-coloured outfits so they appear nude, though in the final section they are dressed in colourful assorted tops, skirts or pants or variations thereof, at first in black leotards and then subtly introducing more colour – reds, greens and yellows. Most of Tree of Codes is performed barefoot but some pointe work is included in spiky pas de deux and McGregor’s work demands a very flexible back, slithery floorwork and laser sharp legs, blending a range of stylistic influences.

Typical of McGregor’s style, the dancers are sometimes tilted slightly off balance, twisting and executing dizzying whipping turns, daredevil leaps and catches and hurtling through the air. All such movements are performed ferociously fast but then interrupted with sudden sculptural poses. Traditional ballet steps and shapes are taken, developed and reworked. Waving, plunging body rolls, sinuous movements and skidding floorwork are also featured.

At times the work is dominated by Eliasson's use of mirrors in his set design. Various parts of the geometrically shaped, brightly coloured set revolved, opened and lifted At first there is only one complete backdrop of a mirror that doubles the actual number of 12 performers, blurring the lines of the action. Then the mirror is split and reshaped to offer triple vision. Eventually the multiplying increases, creating a clever sort of distorted, illusory ‘chorus line’. At a couple of points the houselights go up and the audience sees itself reflected in the mirrors. Sometimes we are blinded by the lighting. At the end, Eliasson's giant spinning orbs of colour dominate, as the dancers blur across the stage in Macgregor’s fiendishly calculated choreography. 

Technically the production is brilliantly done and the dancing was amazing – rigorously and precisely performed – but it left me cold. There was no emotional engagement with the audience – the dancers were impassive, extraordinary aliens.

3 ½ stars

Director & Choreographer: Wayne McGregor
Visual Concept: Olafur Eliasson
Composer: Jamie xx
Inspired by Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
Lighting Realisation: Rob Halliday
Sound Designer: Nick Sagar
Set realisation in association with Studio Olafur Eliasson
Costume realisation with generous support from Acne Studios
Company Wayne McGregor: Rebecca Bassett-Graham, Jordan James Bridge, Travis Clausen-Knight, Louis McMiller, Daniela Neugebauer, Jacob O’Connell, James Pett, Fukiko Takase, Po-Lin Tung and Jessica Wright 
Associate Director for Company Wayne McGregor: Odette Hughes
Guest Artists: Catarina Carvalho and Mara Galeazzi

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.