Wayne McGregor’s Tree of Codes is a work of theatrical largesse, one that unabashedly revels in spectacle, visual trickery and all the sweaty stage magic that ensues when a bunch of top-drawer dancers throw unusual shapes.
It takes its name from the altered book by Jonathan Safran Foer, who chopped a copy of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles into a different entity with a new sequence of words and phrases. Like Foer, McGregor isn’t aiming to depict or re-imagine pre-war Poland by invoking Schulz’s text. Instead, the show itself communicates its own sensory reality and audacious artifice – surreal, strange and utterly involving. There’s so much going on kinetically, so many fizzing physical encounters and configurations, that the spectator is necessarily invited to hone in and watch selectively, a visual version of Foer’s act of splicing and dicing.
But crucially, as with all McGregor’s works, it’s not just about the choreography but collaboration between artists. Here, Jamie xx provides the music – a shifting series of tracks involving screechy strings, insistent beats and languidly drifting vocals. More magnificent is Olafur Eliasson’s design, an ingenious confection of scrims and angled mirrors that occasionally reflects the audience back at itself. When the dancers – six from the Paris Opera Ballet and nine from McGregor’s own company – twist their wrists inside several glassy hexagon shapes, the images fragment and suddenly we see a bunch of strangely fleshy flowers, petals undulating. There’s nothing more to it than the smoke-and-mirrors thrill – but that’s enough.
In a similar fashion, the piece begins with a total blackout before the stage is filled by dancers in light-studded bodysuits. They spin, writhe and turn balletic attitudes into silvery-white constellations. Again, it’s just spectacle involving LEDs and lycra, but it’s great nonetheless – a summons into a world of otherness, accompanied by synths. This starry opening renders the POB etoiles within the cast anonymous, but they soon reveal themselves. Marie-Agnes Gillot is supremely leggy, scything the space with queenly assuredness. Regardless of rank, every dancer shines as an excellent interpreter of McGregor’s physical language with all its boneless dynamism, scribbling limbs, heads bobbing and arrowing. Duets are duplicated and reduplicated between pairs, phrases of motion counterpointed, though the moments of unison could do with being just a tad tighter. Most encounters have a certain coolness to them – the dancers do their stuff and swagger off again. But there’s more to these elite bodies than the hard surface sheen of the mirrors that reflect them. Moments of hunched crookedness or indignant rebuttal bring a rare disquiet to the otherwise dashing display.
Tree of Codes is on until 11th March 2017 at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.