Olafur Eliasson, Jamie xx, and Wayne McGregor Blend Ballet with Art and Beats

What happens when a major contemporary artist, an acclaimed avant-garde choreographer, and a popular music producer collaborate on a ballet, inspired by the work of a living author?

  • Olafur Eliasson. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Curtain was slated for 7 p.m. at Tuesday evening’s performance of Tree of Codes at the Park Avenue Armory, but the action was well underway before any dancers took to the stage. As guests filed into the vast drill hall—pared down to less than half of its length and catering to 1,000-strong, sold-out audiences—colored lights affixed to the floor cast their silhouettes onto two tall projection screens flanking the north- and south-facing walls. This interactive light installation, activated by figures passing through its threshold, is the brainchild of Olafur Eliasson, whose artwork accompanies choreography from Wayne McGregor and beats from Jamie xx in Tree of Codes, a ballet that takes Jonathan Safran Foer’s experimental novel of the same name as its inspiration.

Audience members delighted as they passed by the screens, quickly conscious of their psychedelic, seven-part shadows that became larger and less saturated the closer they moved toward the lights. Many a rainbow-light-projection selfie was snapped before settling into a seat among an eclectic crowd that included the art world elite, Jamie xx fans, a blind man, and Marina Abramović. Two stage techs switched off the rainbow lights, anticipating the performance’s start. In a single disorienting moment, the stage dissolved into a pool of black, and the first tunes from Jamie xx began (a loud clacking sound giving way to calming strings). Dancers appeared clad in black leotards, melting into their surroundings save for strategically placed lights on their bodies. The effect was one of frenzied fireflies, flitting across an invisible stage. 

  • Photo by Stephanie Berger

Thus ensued an engrossing, exhausting 80 minutes. The ballet is without narrative but is nonetheless visually and aurally absorbing. It takes viewers on a sonorous spree through mirrored backdrops, Plexiglas scrims, and colored lights, led by 15 stunning dancers (seven men, eight women), who somehow personified the art and music reverberating off of their lithe bodies.

  • Photo by Stephanie Berger

Safran Foer’s manipulation of another writer’s work—Bruno Schulz’s 1934 The Street of Crocodiles, from which he extracted words to create a new story—was as much a point of departure as a metaphor throughout the performance. The action in Tree of Codes takes place so fluidly that it’s easy to miss the transitions, whether propelled by dancers leaving the stage, scrims shifting, or music reaching an unexpected fever pitch. McGregor’s dancers peeled off into pairs and trios, often leaving a solitary figure to exit the stage alone. They carried and climbed onto one another, converged and repelled, lept, fell, kicked the air, and twirled in rapid succession and varying degrees of unison. Jamie xx’s mercurial, genreless soundtrack wove in and out by way of beats and instrumentals, words and voices, the sound of running water and a chirping siren, with rare moments of silence. Meanwhile, Eliasson’s transparent and mirrored barriers slowly opened and closed, lit up, and altered in transparency and color. 

  • Photo by Stephanie Berger

With ample room to deploy his proficiency with light, shadow, and perspective, Eliasson meshed well with his peers, creating a cyclical, reflective environment to meditate on Safran Foer’s book, physically and conceptually. His stage set (described accurately as a “prism” by McGregor in the performance’s program) not only resonated with the performance’s music and dance components, but also incorporated the audience—reflecting the attentive crowd at several points. In an early moment, the mirrored backdrop appeared, cut with a half-moon sliced into a symmetry of arcs; soon after, dancers appeared carrying mirrored hexagonal cones, while others placed their undulating arms through them. The actions that were translated through Eliasson’s mirrors competed with the dancers themselves for viewers’ attention.

  • Photo by Stephanie Berger

The Tree of Codes’s tripartite collaboration saw three elements of the arts come together in vivid, masterful dialogue, the product of numerous discussions between the artists, driven by McGregor. Just as suddenly as the performance began, awakening the senses with a start, it shuttered them closed, leaving viewers in darkness. And I left satisfied yet spent, feeling the same sensation that comes upon finishing a great book, compelled to put it down and sing its praises.

—Casey Lesser

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