Tree of Codes
Sadler’s Wells
Director: Wayne McGregor
Visual concept: Olafur Eliasson
Music: Jamie XX
Dates: 4-11 March 2017


The gig is billed as Wayne McGregor’s but the evening belongs to one of the biggest names in the contemporary art world, Olafur Eliasson, and to musician Jamie XX.  That said, it is McGregor’s gifts as a director and as a charismatic strategist that made this impressive show happen in the first place.  Sadler’s Wells has brought to London an outstanding collaboration of choreographer, artist and musician.

McGregor brings his dancers into close relation to set designer Eliasson’s transparent, mirrored and cloning screens.  The bodies duplicate themselves, confound perspectives on their changing configurations.  There are windows, gaps, holes, strings of light, shards of shifting colour.  Much of the imagery created by Eliasson’s sets refers to showing and hiding, copies and originals.

Nor is the audience left out of the performance.  Now and then a spotlight slowly scans the spectators to make us part of the spectacle.  It spies us out, projects our images on to a ghostly screen at the back of the stage so we see ourselves seeing the performance and seeing ourselves.  Working seamlessly with sound designer Nick Sagar and lighting man Rob Halliday, Eliasson makes his massive, mobile architectural expanses deeply integral to the effect of the whole.  They provide a point of reference, stabilise a dance piece that often teeters on the edge of unworkability.

The choreography is speedy to the point of being disconcertingly hypnotic, repetitious – which cannot be said of the set’s mirrored reflections of the bodies’ multiple propagations.  There is constant dazzling detail in the dancers’ movement so that one easily stops appreciating its virtuosity and starts noticing the occasional flaw.  One longs for less, or a rhythm which includes stillness, shared connection, or more space, more shape, more measure, more measuredness.  The dancers are cast from MacGregor’s eponymous company and also the Paris Opera Ballet.  Their standard and style is uneven and it would be nice if that worked as a feature but it doesn’t.  For all their effort, often it’s not clear where it’s all going or why.  Nevertheless, the show is a success because the collaboration allows one part to support another.

Perhaps the motifs of seeing, seeing through, seeing double and so on, began with close attention being paid to Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, “Tree of Codes”, which supposedly first inspired McGregor to make the dance.  It is a complete and utter mystery that he kept the title and has made so much of the book’s relevance to his work because in the finished product the dance piece has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the book – unless one is expected to throw a party for the evidence that all artists working in the Western world today share a cultural heritage.  The good news is that now everyone will want to buy Foer’s expensive book when it is back in print; and also, Foer gets his photo and biog into the programme notes.

“Tree of Codes”, the book by Foer, appeared in 2010.  It is a poetic, sculptural re-making per scalpel of an existing text by means of literally excising words out of the paper pages of Street of Crocodiles (1934).  This was by the Polish writer and artist Bruno Schultz, an obscure Jewish art teacher, painfully introverted and solitary, who in 1942 was shot and killed on the street by a Nazi.  Foer’s re-making of the book, first rejected by mainstream publishers, was difficult for printers to replicate economically – but one must conclude that for a price anything is possible.  Whereas Schultz’s original book comprised short stories, Foer’s does not: he makes them into a single story about the last day of someone’s life.  When he came upon it, choreographer McGregor found this strange book moving and inspiring and set forth on the plan to make a dance piece in collaboration with visual artist Olafur Eliasson and musician Jamie XX.

To give the artists their due, just as Foer’s reconstruction of Schultz’s book is not illustrative of its originating text but is something completely different, so McGregor et al‘s production is something completely different again.  Except, that is, for keeping Foer’s title which comprises letters plucked chronologically from Schultz’s original title, Street of Crocodiles (the title of one of the stories in the collection) to produce the words “Tree of Codes”.  But, as it happens, Street of Crocodiles was not Schultz’s title, but was the title used in the first English translation.  The original Polish title was “The Cinnamon Shops” (also the title of one of the stories in the collection).  So even here are generated our themes of originals and copies, alteration and new-ness, excision and addition.

I’d like to suggest that if you go to this show, you forget the writers Bruno Schultz and also Jonathan Safran Foer.  It’s all talk and undue emphasis.  If only the three men had their tongues in their cheeks – but I fear not.

Instead, more accurately, consider that these artists, whether they know it or not, throw light upon the strange turns of the organic and mechanical impulses that constitute the creative process.  One small jolt – reading an odd book, for instance – can start an avalanche.  One movement ­– physical, visual or musical – begets another, and so on without end.  Art, they are demonstrating, involves a kind of reproduction and deletion of what is already there, an adjusted, un-true reflection upon, and departure from, what has gone before.  That’s when something quite new comes into being.

Reviewer for London Grip:
Primrose MacFay
7 March 2017.

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