TREE OF CODES
An Art/Sound Environment with Fleeting Bodies
Park Avenue Armory
September 12 – 21, 2015
“On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can’t forget it has a body,” Jonathan Safran Foer said in a New York Times interview about his art book, Tree of Codes, the inspiration for the dance theater collaboration recently presented at the Park Avenue Armory. Foer’s book reduces and remakes Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles (Tree of Codes is a trimmed version of the title) by literally excising words, leaving gaps, and transforming the text’s meaning.
Of all the powerful elements comprising the Tree of Codes performance—the visuals by Olafur Eliasson, the music by Jamie xx, and the choreography by Wayne McGregor—the dance feels the most fragile. The sets, lighting, and sound are all amplified to fit the Armory’s massive Drill Hall. But without some sort of gamma-ray device, the dancers—albeit super talented ones from the Paris Opera Ballet and McGregor’s own company—must remain merely human-sized.
Eliasson seems to have had a ball designing the piece’s many visual elements. As a kind of prologue, and a way to dramatize the audience’s relatively long walk past the stage and up a vast field of bleacher seats, he installed rows of colored footlights; as people pass by them, their colored, canonized shadows are thrown on the opposite walls. Photos of these delightful abstract “self-portraits” seem a required, organic element of the performance.
Shadow-selfie time over, we are plunged into darkness. The soundtrack is our only accompaniment: the sound of clapping begins, quickly evolving into chimes and a heavy bass line. Dancers sporting pin-lights enter the stage. It is difficult to discern dance moves from simply up-and-down jumps, but I detect some whirling and kicks in the mix, mildly evocative of a MOMIX show. I seek out order—lines, constellations—but my search proves fruitless until the dancers cluster at center like a supernova. The metaphor makes sense: this is the big bang. As they trickle off stage, their lights dimmed, it is as if they are being sucked into a black hole.
The dancers’ arms are the evening’s next stars, thrust like stamens through a chorus line of flower-like sculptures as the music trills and tremors in a makeshift Eden. When a man and a woman in flesh-hued leotards appear, I clock them as Adam and Eve, and try to create a narrative framework for what is currently an abstract performance. The reflective backdrop serves to double the movement, and we now see the sweeping limbs and broadly-stretched torsos of eight barefoot dancers. Familiar ballet steps punctuate McGregor’s thrusting, inside-out shapes. The chaos of bodies at last snaps into a grid, and the dancers calmly position their arms in neat unison before dissolving once more on frenetic, disparate paths.
Stealthily, Eliasson makes the audience a part of the set by casting two roving spotlights on viewers until we are reflected onto the mirror-like upstage panel. A remix of the old pop song “So Much in Love” repeats hauntingly (“[…] are we two, that we don’t know what to do”), nostalgically recalling a more innocent state of mind. The snippet evokes William Forsythe’s use of Gavin Bryars’s sampled score (“Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet”) in Quintett, music that is equally pathos-filled.
The shapeshifting upstage wall then cleaves—two quarter-pie slices opening like doors to reveal a projection of cloudy skies. À la Chekhov, (if there’s a gun present, it must be used) sure enough, a couple is soon positioned in the crux of the mirrored surfaces, their presence tripled. A strip of pink neon tubes lowers and turns amber, adding to the fun-house atmosphere. Then a Plexiglas wall descends, bisecting the stage width-wise. Now the dancers in the two stage chambers appear redoubled to us, illuminated by side and top lighting. At this point, some have changed into scant black costumes, and others into primary colors. The hall-of-mirrors trick is repeated with yet another Plexiglas wall until the company of fifteen dancers seems large enough to populate a village. It is a logical progression to contemporary urbanity from Eden.
A few dancers wear soft slippers or pointe shoes—dead giveaways for the ballet specialists who, while adept, give more formal interpretations of McGregor’s potently athletic movement. But when focused on more virtuosic balletic passages, they excel. In fact, the mix of the two companies provides some interesting tension, almost like lions and cheetahs inhabiting the same turf.
In the dizzying finale, Eliasson’s downstage panel is tinted blue-green. Two circular windows open and close, giving us pops of hot color from the upstage panel, plus periodically blinding reflections of the moving surfaces. Add in the dancers, plus the raucous crescendoing music, and it is sensory overload. The performance lives up to the physically huge expectations that each Armory event promises, but fails to provide a clear narrative that relates to the titular novel. After my brain stops buzzing, it is Eliasson’s invention and playfulness in the realm of theater that linger most clearly.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.