The sum of the ingredients in this project is so weighty as to boggle the grey cells of even the mightiest intellect. It has evolved – over three years’ gestation – in a kind of kaleidoscopic iteration, beginning with a book; turned into a work of art; and then represented in design and movement, made to music that lifts the written text algorithmically; coding the words and spaces into notes and rhythms. And, yet, all of these artistic forces are somehow moulded by Wayne McGregor’s directorial passion into a work of arresting, yet rather simple, beauty. 

© Joel Chester Fildes
© Joel Chester Fildes

It all begins with Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, a collection of inter-related short stories, originally published in 1934. Schulz was shot dead by a Gestapo officer in Nazi-occupied Poland, eight years’ later. The aforementioned book became a different kind of artwork in the hands of Jonathan Safran Foer, who sculpted it with scissors, into an artefact, by cutting holes and highlighting particular words. His snipping extended to the title, lopping off an unnecessary ‘The’ and seven other letters to make Tree of Codes. McGregor chose Olafur Eliasson and Jamie xx to, respectively, design and compose; and their contributions are so significant that the headline creative responsibility is shared between the three of them.

The resultant 75-minute work is an absorbing spectacle. First amongst equals, comes the impactful continuum of the Eliasson Studio’s designs. The show opens in a variation of black light theatre with a dark stage, gradually inhabited by dancers’ encased head-to-toe in black clothing, visible only through tiny lights attached to their outlines. It was like a human game of join-the-dots and, in a strange way, it seemed to me to bring into human form the LED figures that Julian Opie designed to walk across a screen above the stage in McGregor’s Infra (2008). 

McGregor let there be light just as the blackout was beginning to pall and thereafter, Tree of Codes was a vivid, colourful panorama, made all the more so by the imaginative use of reflection, through fractured mirror-like walls, screens, funnels and curled cones, each of which apparently represented some aspect of Foer’s artefact. The designs created a plethora of optical tricks, from a simple duet playing out visually in quadruple sets of identical pairs, moving as one; to an impossible number of arms stretching out through the lustrous funnels. Wherever one looked in this hall of mirrors, it was complicated to divorce reality from reflection. 

Jamie xx has composed a bold and impressive score, turning Foer’s artistic edit of Schulz’s words into electronic music that captures myriad moods: brief episodes of melancholy punctuating a varied spectrum of insistent, energetic, pulsating attack. I loved it.

McGregor has mixed nine dancers from his own company with six who are borrowed from Paris Opera Ballet where he has worked with distinction in recent years. It is a non-stop torrent of dance, eased only by momentary breaks offstage for each of the fifteen. Full-on, high-energy movement is performed at a striking level of physicality that just begins to dwindle, unsurprisingly, in the final minutes. 

Marie Agnès Gillot is an absolute revelation. A POB dancer for 27 years (13 as an étoile), she presents the willowy, elegant, yet sensual, central figure in many of the group dances and no matter how many bodies are moving on stage (expanded multiple times by optical illusion) eyes are continually drawn to her imposing and charismatic figure. Although this is very much an ensemble work in which the unity and integration of the whole body of performers (and with the many artistic elements) is key, I was continually registering the individual and partnered work of several of the Company Wayne McGregor members, notably Daniella Neugebauer (who seemed ever-present); Jessica Wright; adorable Fukiko Takase; and Louis McMiller.

Commissioned for the Manchester International Festival for a summer première, in 2015, this was a very welcome brief London season for a danced exhortation of the Northern Powerhouse.  McGregor’s past catalogue is so ubiquitous, not only here in the UK, but globally, that it is barely credible to believe that he has actually only created one new work in the past 12 months (Multiverse for The Royal Ballet). With the imminent opening of his new bespoke facilities in the Olympic Park at the end of this month, I expect this output to proliferate.  

If you listen to the man, there are a welter of unfulfilled ideas. Having too many opportunities to realise those passions might lead to an output that (in the old English expression) is “a mile wide and an inch deep”. But, in this case, as in so many others before, McGregor has delivered a mighty concept through strong leadership and teamwork, creating art, through movement, that possesses both complexity and depth, yet unfolds with arresting clarity.