In 2010, Jonathan Safran Foer, already a celebrity in the realm of contemporary literature, published Tree Of Codes. A game-changing hybrid that was as much a visual puzzle as it was a literary work, Foer essentially redacted his favorite book (Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles), removing large sections of pages through an innovating laser-cutting technique to reveal layers upon layers of fragmented text, and yielding an elusive narrative ebb and flow.

© Stephanie Berger
© Stephanie Berger

Five years later, the Manchester International Festival enlists an impressive team of collaborators including visual artist Olafur Eliasson, Jamie xx (the frontman on the Mercury Prize winning band xx), and the prolific choreographer Wayne McGregor to create a contemporary ballet production inspired by Foer’s innovative publication and presented under the same title. After its world première in Manchester earlier this July, Tree of Codes is being presented this week for its New York première at the Park Avenue Armory’s formidable Drill Hall.

Aside from its stellar design team, the production intriguingly brings together two diverse groups of performers – members of the Paris Opera Ballet as well as dancers from McGregor’s own company. Under the choreographer’s helm, the two teams are integrated quite seamlessly and there is certainly a great deal of committed dancing on display. While I did not expect this Tree of Codes to be a literal translation of Foer’s work on the stage – given the book’s challenging structure, that would have been quite a difficult task – there are, at any rate, parallel threads to be observed. This is reflected mostly in a very loose narrative impetus that relies on free associations more so than on a linear build, and a great deal of visual layering that is greatly facilitated by Eliasson’s complex, diaphanous, ever-shifting stage installation and buoyed by xx’s thundering, cinematic sound score, which seismically shifts from bass-heavy electronica to worldly, Gamelan-infused melodies.

On stage, Eliasson and xx are responsible for delivering the fireworks. Each section of Tree of Codes is characterized by a distinct visual signature, or a nearly magical slight of hand. Indeed, there is a sense of a universe being conjured from the moment in which the dancers enter in complete darkness, appearing as floating points of light (thanks to small LED’s built into their costumes), evocative of primordial ocean creatures; segueing into a brief section in which the dancers insert their arms into mirrored funnels, creating an image reminiscent of sea anemones; then resolving into a first fully illuminated stage image featuring an intimate Adam-and-Eve-like duet. From that point onwards, and indeed throughout the show – without wanting to give the magic away– suffice it to say that Eliasson’s impressive stage machinery provides the foreground as well as the backdrop that allows McGregor to build a code of kaleidoscopic imagery, endlessly refracting the dancers’ sinuous movements against the colorfully translucent and reflective set pieces that literally vibrate under assault from Jamie xx’s infectious bass-lines.

© Stephanie Berger
© Stephanie Berger
As far as the choreographic realm is concerned, while the promotional materials for Tree of Codes intimate that the performance process sought inspiration in Foer’s novel to mine an emotional terrain and deliver a sort of a visceral experience, I find this element to be conspicuously missing from the mix. Performance-wise, there is certainly a great deal of impressively muscular movement, delivered by a talented troupe of diverse dancers, yet it is a language that is very much concerned with physicality, with very little affect – bodies becoming more of an installation’s part rather than a fully human presence. Granted, that may have been the creators’ intent; that being said, I feel that the real star of this production is its luminous stage design.

***11