Tree of Codes – a new ballet choreographed and directed by Wayne McGregor, with a set by Olafur Eliasson and a score by Jamie xx – begins veiled in darkness. On stage, the dancers’ forms are lost; we only see star-pricks of white light emitted by clusters of LEDs at certain joints or along the sides of their bodies. These come together in abstract constellations, mapping out space as points in the blackness. The soundtrack is a layered, shimmering electronic melody.
Tree of Codes premiered in July at the Opera House in Manchester on the opening weekend of the fifth edition of the biannual Manchester International Festival. Like the bulk of MIF’s programme, Tree of Codes is a new, collaborative commission – and the first time that a ballet has been staged as part of the festival. It takes as its inspiration Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2010 book of the same name, which itself is a re-working of Bruno Schulz’s 1934 collection of proto-magical realist short stories, which were translated into English as The Street of Crocodiles. To create his work, Safran-Foer literally cut up Schulz’s text: his book comprises 134 precisely die-cut pages from which sections have been excised, leaving a compact new narrative and a sculptural object.
As my eyes adjust to the deep darkness of the theatre, I think about the skittering patterns of light as an inverse metaphor for ink on paper, words on a page – making meaning in relation to the forms around them in an expanse of whiteness. The lights stay low for the next sequence, which begins with two dancers – one male, one female – crouching on the floor, touching. Their skin-toned hot pants (and crop top, for the woman) make them appear naked. They rise in a quicksilver exchange of gesture and response, coiling together and pulling apart. It’s not tender but exigent, testing. He lifts her; she slides down the front of his body. As the stage fills with similarly clad dancers, the pair dissolves into the mass. It’s hard to tell how many bodies there are because, as they dance, a mirrored backdrop becomes visible. Duos become trios, embrace, struggle, break away and re-form in an endless flow in which everyone seems to dance with everyone else or, rather, no one at all.
These multiple seductions make the whole thing febrile, sexy; you can almost feel the heat between bodies. McGregor’s choreography is lean and urgent, all lifts and floor work and sky-straining hyperextension. I am not a dance critic and am contentedly blind to the dancers’ techniques and the intricacies of the choreography; instead, I am kept in a kind of held-breath rapture by their impossible musculature. I straighten in my seat, weighing my own body, gauging its capabilities; I think about what a magnificent thing the thinking body is, and how little most of us make of ours.
At the rear of the stage, Eliasson’s mirrored backdrop is inset with a semi-circle that, as the piece progresses, folds inwards along a central axis so that the reflection of each dancer is doubled and then tripled. These elements are familiar: the artist created The Weather Project (2003) – his smouldering solar illusion for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern – using a semi-circular bank of lights, which reflected off hundreds of fractionally offset mirrors on the ceiling. It was seeing Merce Cunningham’s dancers perform in The Weather Project’s wondrous glow (a happy accident of Tate scheduling) that first made McGregor think about a future collaboration with Eliasson.
The Weather Project was candid about its own conditions of production – you could see the smoke machines and walk behind the ‘sun’. The sets of Tree of Codes further test our willingness to be seduced by illusion, lost in it, even. At one point, the dancers perform behind a reflective scrim, which creates an infinity mirror with the backdrop behind, trapping them in a dance with their own endless reflections.
Our capacity to make and make believe in illusions, and to break them or have them broken for us, shapes our interactions with others, particularly those who we are closest to. (There are few lyrics in Jamie xx’s score but a mournful refrain whose words I can’t fully make out – ‘so in love ... that we don’t know what to do’ – repeats at certain points.) This isn’t a classical love story, but it is certainly one of attraction – to the point of obsession, perhaps even to the point of despair.
The sorry through-line between The Street of Crocodiles and Safran-Foer’s book is a central father figure’s gradual descent into madness. In Schulz’s telling, a desired but controlling servant girl helps lead him there; in Tree of Codes, he is fixated on a character simply known as ‘Mother’, who takes on Freudian proportions and threatens to completely overwhelm him. If there is an equivalent on stage to these intoxicating female presences, it is the part danced by Marie-Agnès Gillot, a prima ballerina with the Paris Opera Ballet. There are 15 cast members in total, nine from McGregor’s company and six from the Paris Opera Ballet: seven male/female pairs and Gillot, who stands apart, like a different species. She’s commanding, exquisite; as she dances a solo in the final scene, you can see the line of every muscle, ‘almost through her ribcage to her heart’, someone behind me whispers later.
The work crescendos with the dancers bathed in luminous colour, behind earthrise-blue polycarbonate panels. The score is an insistent, four-to-the-floor pulse. At a certain point, two spheres cut from the panels begin to rotate slowly, like mobiles. We have come full circle: a day, a lifetime, the life of a star. In the end it all comes down to the same nothing. (‘“We wish. We wish; we want, we want we want We are not,” he said, “long-term beings”’, reads one of the more heartbreaking of Safran-Foer’s paper-cut phrases.)
I emerge from the side door of the theatre into a summer evening, disorientated by the glassy parade of surrounding office blocks, like oil-slick mirrors. Walking back to the car, I pick out the bright clothes and skimpy outfits of the Friday-night crowds around me and the pulse of techno in bars that I pass. We all reconfigure the world to make our own realities: we cut things and keep others; we do it unconsciously. I see the dancers everywhere.