Enchanting modern ballet with incomparable visuals and a musical score you’ll want to listen to on repeat.
I bought tickets to see Tree of Codes (the first time round) on a whim. We were passing by the Opera house and figured, hey, the cheap seats are only €10, let’s see what’s on. Reading about that night’s performance got us very intrigued – Jamie XX made a soundtrack to a ballet? – and the name Olafur Eliasson got my hopes up too. I saw a short piece by the choreographer Wayne McGregor last year which interested me but, to be perfectly honest, wasn’t my cup of tea. Seeing his name on the bill next to Jamie XX and Olafur Eliasson was enough to convince me to give him another chance – that and the €10 tickets – and I am so, so glad I did. McGregor was inspired to create the piece by the intricately die-cut novel ‘Tree of Codes’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, who in turn was inspired by Bruno Schulz’s ‘The Street of Crocodiles‘.
Going to the Palais Garnier is always a pleasure; I always tease my leftie boyfriend for wanting to go back again and again to one of Paris’ most bourgeois venues but every time has been so different (it’s such a lottery!) and I can’t help but feel extra savvy knowing people have paid almost €100 more to sit in the same room and watch the same performance as the twentysomethings up near the gods.
For this performance, we had box seats behind a couple of slightly more affluent ticket-holders. The second and third floors probably give a better view of the whole stage than amphitheatre seats, at least for a ballet where there can be dancers upstage and downstage, and I definitely felt the benefit for this.
The lights dim and the sound of disjointed clapping seeps into the room – is someone clapping? No. It’s the score starting.
Several constellations take to the stage and begin exploring and interlinking the spaces between each other. Okay, if you want to be realistic, they’re dancers in the dark with LED lights dotted all over their bodysuits, but you’ll need to leave your realism and any preconceptions about ballet at the door for this one.
After two short pieces which play with minimal light and mirroring, the lights come up and the main part of the ballet begins. Eliasson’s use of mirrors for the visual concept marries the grand opera house’s longstanding classical reputation with McGregor’s newer-than-new choreography and his unique take on ballet, and the vivid colours not only echo the dancers’ costumes but are also reminiscent of Jamie XX’s latest album cover and Eliasson’s own colour installation in Manhattan which was made to accompany the piece.
The mirrored backdrop opens up, multiplying the dancers through reflections and hidden passageways. Revolving glass and two-way mirrors literally add another layer to the piece, and there is such a rich abundance of specifics to experience in this feast for the eyes and ears which uses a full spectrum of colour and sound frequencies. Fluid, poised, and masterful movements are juxtaposed with raw and jagged jumps and leaps; just when you think you’ve got McGregor’s choreography figured out, he changes it up again. Hands reaching through the middle of mirror structures; the sounds of bare feet hitting the floor and hard breaths as dancers throw themselves at each other; bodies colliding for a few seconds of dance before moving on to their next steps.
The score gives nods to the regal setting with the odd piano or violin piece in between self-aware snippets of the kind of sound Jamie XX is known for: textbook XX basslines and hooks have audience members nodding to the music and making a mental note to look up whether this music has been released online. The part of the music that really got to me was the repeated lyric ‘so in love are we two / that we don’t know what to do’, and a quick scan of a Pitchfork interview tells me that Jamie XX wrote that the night he broke up with his girlfriend of three years. That’s the kind of near-indescribable feeling this whole experience will give you: you’ll love being there to witness it, at some moments you’ll have a smile on your face, at others you’ll just have noticed a little detail (aural or visual) that had been present for minutes already, but you know this is going to end, however much you want it to stay.
After what feels like hours but also only minutes, the electronically-produced clapping that began the show brings it to an end. There are a few brief seconds of silence before authentic applause fills the Palais Garnier, and it’s all over.
I’ve had a hard time getting myself to write about this piece, but I knew I had to the minute the lights came up in the theatre. I turned to my friends, who were equally as in awe, and said, “I want to see it again. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.” We spent the next half hour trying to put into words what we’d just seen – ‘incredible’ and ‘amazing’ kept coming up over and over again; this isn’t the kind of thing you can just find the words for straight away… Maybe this is what modern ballet for the youth of today looks like. Even thinking about it now is giving me that same feeling I had on the night: I can never fully describe how it made me feel, so I need as many people as possible to experience it with me. It’s fine if you’re not into it, but I need you to see it.
Tree of Codes has been touring since 2015 in Manchester, New York and Paris.
Header image taken from Manchester International Festival’s video.