Tree of Codes, the current modern dance production at the Park Avenue Armory, brings together the efforts of three major names from three different disciplines: Wayne McGregor, the award-winning British choreographer; Danish-Icelandic visual artist and light wizard Olafur Eliasson; and electronic music producer Jamie xx, one third of the band the xx. Make that four notables, actually, if you count the author Jonathan Safran Foer, whose book Tree of Codes served as the point of departure for the one-hour, 20-minute-long extravaganza, which made its US premiere last night.
It is undoubtedly an impressive spectacle, yet one that does not quite inspire lasting awe, even if its contributors were themselves enraptured by their source content — which is yet another notable title: Foer used The Street of Crocodiles, published by the Polish writer Bruno Schultz in 1934, as the literal material for his 2010 tome, excising many of Schultz’s original letters and words to produce a work that exists as both literature and sculpture. McGregor, who directed the new visual manifestation, described the original in Tree of Codes‘ program as “so magnetic, conjuring a whole range of visual, sonic, and kinaesthetic images.
“I felt it would really be a phenomenal project to try and translate this book in some way through dance, imagery, and sound — a new iteration,” he writes.
Rather than replicate the book’s unorthodox narrative, the ballet instead attempts to respond to the physical architecture of Foer’s textured text and the poetry that emerged from his new organization of “writing.” Each of the performance’s contributors deals with space within his respective medium in distinctive ways, which makes the collaboration promising: Eliasson, for example, often purposefully disorients his viewers by playing delightfully with light, shapes, and colors; Jamie xx is known for sonic landscapes crafted from his intricate stratification of bass tones and beats.
The result, shown at the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, is an array of dynamic choreography by dancers from the renowned Paris Opera Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor, lighting effects by Eliasson that don’t fail to dazzle, and a new range of sensational sounds from Jamie xx — all of which, when presented together, ultimately amount to sensory overload without much emotional substance.
Less a meditation on the tactile experience that Foer’s novel creates for readers, Tree of Codes is more of a visualization of a music album, though one without a narrative. From the start, Jamie xx’s score — notably his first for a ballet — dominates. Vibrant and complex, it drives the performance partly because the accompanying visuals overwhelm. The show begins with a rapid pitter-patter of the British producer’s beats that resembles an ovation (a startling, slightly discombobulating introductory sound for a live spectacle), which escalates to resemble galloping followed by his classic steel drum sounds, as dancers wearing bulbs of white light appear on the black stage to create constellations in motion.
There’s a lot to digest once the stage brightens, revealing Eliasson’s transparent and mirrored layers of screens around which McGregor’s dancers maneuver. The gleaming panels, projected at times with iridescent colors, also spin slowly like paper cutouts — alluding to Foer’s work — reminiscent of Eliasson’s past installations such as “The inverted panorama house” (2004) or his “Round Rainbow” (2005). Blue, orange, and red spotlights dance across them; one even scans the audience who sometimes appears on stage in a bright reflection that only distracts from the performers. The choreography itself is masterly: at any time, one to all of the 15 sensational dancers take the stage — often in clusters of trios — to leap and glide across it, fan out and bend lithe limbs, and pretzel their bodies into twitching forms. The movements are deliberate and invigorated with energy, but they are endless to the point that trying to keep up becomes exhausting. I had not had the privilege of experiencing McGregor’s work prior to “Tree of Codes,” but I imagine other productions of his serve as better introductions to his oeuvre.
What captures and holds our attention is thus the score, especially magnetic as it offers music you would otherwise never hear from Jamie xx, whose percussion-heavy sounds usually fill dance, not drill, halls. The layering of radiant, high-pitched syncopation and thudding pulses found on In Colour, his solo debut released this year, do emerge — although here, they’re more sun-kissed — but the truly gorgeous surprises are when he tinkers on a lone piano, looping simple chords that develop with subtle variation. Still vibrant yet invigorated with the haunting mood of the xx’s records, these delicate classical pieces allow for full appreciation of the producer’s raw keyboard skills. Such strains often accompany McGregor’s own best moments, when quiet solos or pas de deux allow one to finally focus on how the flow of dancers’ arms and legs as well as the lines they form that slice, with precision, through space, give shape to the sound. Similarly, Eliasson’s lights and mirrors recede in scope during these softer scenes, serving as artful props that emphasize individual motion through simple reflections rather than grand obstacles to dance around.
It is not on such an enchanting sequence that Tree of Codes ends, but rather on pomp and circumstance that summons all 15 dancers: they swirl to layers upon layers of euphoric beats below revolving circles textured with marbled patterns of rainbow colors — before the performance all ends, rather abruptly, with enveloping darkness and the pitter-patter we first heard. The scene wows, but it presents magic without mystique. The spectacle’s three seasoned contributors have already proven their talents to disrupt perception through innovation, but their current collaboration leaves only slight impressions.
Tree of Codes continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 21.