Tree of Codes Ballet

Originally published on Fader. Additional stories I’ve done for The Fader are here.

A ballet inspired by a book that has words meticulously cut out of it—that’s what Tree of Codes is on paper. Yet the collaboration between producer/composer Jamie xx, choreographer Wayne McGregor, and artist Olafur Eliasson is much more than a direct interpretation of the book’s fragmented pages. It is a new art piece unto itself.

As crowds first witnessed at the Manchester International Festival in the U.K. last July, the Tree of Codes ballet engulfs viewers in a kinesthetic experience: they are bathed in color, immersed in sound, mesmerized by dance, and made to feel included in the piece through the presence of a mirror onstage.

It all began four years ago when MIF founding director Alex Poots asked McGregor if he would spearhead a new performance. McGregor already had his muse: the book they would name the project after, Tree of Codes, which was “written” by Jonathan Safran Foer in 2011. Foer purposely cut words out of Bruno Schulz’s 1934 title, The Street of Crocodiles, in order to reveal a different story within its pages, one which turns Schulz’s story about a merchant family from a small Galician town into that of a man’s last 24 hours alive.

McGregor was listening to a lot of Jamie xx’s music at the time and knew he wanted to work with Olafur Eliasson after seeing his sublime The Weather Project at the Tate Modern in 2003, where the artist created a giant, rising “sun” in the museum (McGregor describes it over the phone as, “one of the most thrilling performance events I’ve ever been to.”) So he asked Jamie and Eliasson if they’d do a ballet with him, and they both said yes.

As it turns out, Jamie and Eliasson were excited to be brought together. Jamie had seen Eliasson’s exhibitions, and Eliasson explains via email that he is “fascinated by the subtle layers in Jamie’s music.” He continues, “The beats and lower end feel like they engage the subconscious; they remind me of where I come from,” referring to his past as a b-boy. Eliasson also recognizes the crucial intersection of all three of their practices: “Both Wayne and Jamie work in ways with which I identify—they embrace abstraction and complexity in contemporary languages, while giving their output a form and a tone that are accessible to broader audiences.”

From the start, McGregor consciously took a step back from his usual role as both choreographer and director, so that the three of them could equally influence the end result. “We all had our immediate responses to the book, and that’s what we threw on the table at the beginning,” says McGregor. “The point of bringing in people as brilliant as Jamie and Olafur is so that they’ll challenge you to think differently about what you do.”

McGregor applied the same logic to choosing dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet and his own Company Wayne McGregor. Describing the book Tree of Codes as “a body” and “a skeleton” on its own, McGregor makes a parallel to the dancers he gravitates towards—those who are “really open, curious, imaginative, and have a lot of histories in their bodies.” He adds, “They may have danced as a child, they might have done rave dancing in the ‘80s. Everybody who dances has their own physical signature, their own personal handwriting, and it’s never just ballet.”

While preparing his musical score, Jamie xx visited the dancer rehearsals in London and was immediately struck by the energy. “I could feel their movements in the floor, and they’d come right up to me,” he told The FADER earlier this year. “It was so much more moving and emotional than I thought it would be.”

Jamie was also inspired by the book’s physicality. He built an algorithm that, McGregor explains, “plays each of the pages” to create the base of the score which he then wrote melodies over. He also enlisted vocals and guitar-playing from emerging Norwegian artist, Okay Kaya, and shares his own voice for the first time on a track titled “French Press Girl.” Another part of the score repeats the mournful, post-breakup lyrics, So in love, are we two/ And we don’t know what to do.

McGregor created choreography for each page of the book “according to meaning, feeling, tone, emotional value, and spaces,” he says, before “cutting holes” in his work to create a new story, like Jonathan did with the book.

Eliasson built installations with grids and rotating, reflecting holes that provide spaces for the colored lights to change and blend into one another. They also fragment the dancers’ bodies from the audience’s perspective. “Producing reality is always about a relationship: between you and a space, a thought, a proposition, an object, and other people,” he says. “I think that mirrors, or furthermore, being more aware of presence can really bring this idea to life.”

“The fact of the process is that we used the book very, very intensely,” says McGregor. “But we’re not doing a description of it in the performance. It had to be something other, a different world, one where you’re lost and don’t recognize it.”

People who saw the ballet in Manchester may not recognize certain aspects of the performance in New York. A more conventional theater, The Manchester Opera House dressed the stage in such a way that the audience only saw the relevant set for each scene. However the cavernous, convertible space of the Park Avenue Armory—an actual former armory built in 1880—is “very utilitarian,” according to McGregor. “Here in the Armory,” he says, “all of the windows are taken away; it’s more skeletal. It’s like a magician’s box, where you expose all of the parts before they work.” Eliasson agrees: “The sets in the Armory have no proscenium masking and will stand free, like an art installation, which I like very much.”

Tree of Codes still has many audiences to reach after New York. After this week of performances, the ballet will travel to Paris, London, Miami, Athens, and other to-be-announced locations. McGregor is pleased that it had such a strong start in Manchester, particularly in being able to reach “people who had never seen dance,” who could engage in the “raw connectedness of the work, because it’s not just dance, or music, or visual art,” he says. “It’s a full, realized work, and the audience themselves are reflected in it. They are active participants.”

Author Jonathan Safran Foer himself was in the audience on opening night in Manchester. “He was thrilled and totally supportive,” McGregor says. “He was really excited that his project inspired other artists to want to work with it.” In that same spirit, McGregor offers a challenge to those able to watch the ballet. “I would love for someone to do something with what we’ve made, because then it becomes transformed again,” he offers. “The idea of iterations and translations is really beautiful.”

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