• Photo: Ravi Deepres
    Photo: Ravi Deepres

Wayne McGregor: Tree of Codes
State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, 19 October

Tree of Codes is a collaboration between British choreographer Wayne McGregor, designer Olafur Eliasson and composer Jamie xx. It is inspired by an art book by author Jonathan Safran Foer who took a favourite novella and meticulously cut out lines of text leaving not only new poetic meanings, but large physical gaps where text had been excised. It plays with notions of absence and presence and layering to create new meaning but ultimately serves only as a touchstone or impetus for the ballet.

There is an implication in the equal billing of the creative team that each component of the work carries the same weight. Perhaps this is the work’s clearest weakness as each element strains to be prominent in any given moment, creating a sense that it is overdone and cluttered both visually and aurally.

This is not to say that Tree of Codes is a bad work or an unenjoyable one, just that it is misjudged in its balancing of dance, design and music.

In fact, the dance was wonderful from 12 dancers drawn from Company Wayne McGregor, two from the Paris Opera Ballet and a guest artist. The choreography bears many hallmarks of McGregor’s style. It is challenging and dynamic and freely mixes contemporary and classical modalities, often commencing a movement in one idiom and resolving it unexpectedly in another.

The dancers worked flat out through the ballet in pacy sequences for groups and pairs. Mirrors and reflection are deployed throughout in the design to skew our perception of how many dancers are onstage at any given time and this device is repeated in different ways to multiply dancers on different parts of the stage at times and create depth of field.

A lone dancer en pointe contrasts with the rest of the cast who are dancing in flats but she is equally vulnerable to the pull of the work’s contemporary and jazz based aesthetic. At first this seems to be a rather pointed homage to the gravitas of the Paris Opera Ballet but it actually settles into the many-layered texture of the whole work and finally two dancers en pointe appear to anchor this element.

Design and music wrestle, at times, with the dancing. Dancers first appear in black with LED illuminated spots along their limbs. I found this immediately alienating as it appeared gimmicky and amateurish. No doubt it is supposed to connote the textual spaces in Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes but its effect creates apprehension and slows down the start of the work. The inclusion of disparate elements does typify the production’s design, especially its tendency for a lack of editing of visual ideas.

Photo: Zan Wimberley
Photo: Zan Wimberley

The design just keeps on coming and includes lights, reflection - both of dancers and audience, floodlights and culminates in significant sculptures rotating above the front rows of the audience and casting coloured reflections around the auditorium. Restraint is notably absent from this production. The effect is to saturate in a way that allows little time for the audience to enjoy, digest and understand the competing stimuli.

Layered on top of the dance and design is a series of musical compositions that feels bitsy and ultimately annoying. Again, I felt that this aspect was not being consciously married with the other elements but was an independent strand let loose into the mix. There is little unity in the music which features sampling from songs and other electronica.

Festival audiences are out to experience something different from the usual and seemed to appreciate the spectacle. Tree of Codes delivered an overabundance of sight and sound but ultimately did not suggest a unified artistic vision.



Top photo: Ravi Deepres

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