Jamie XX Scores Dazzling Ballet Inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer Book: Concert Review

Tree of Codes - H 2015
Courtesy of Stephanie Berger
Olafur Eliasson's dazzling set highlights a multi-layered collaboration.

"Tree of Codes," choreographed by Wayne McGregor, makes its New York City debut.

When Everything Is Illuminated author Jonathan Safran Foer published Tree of Codes in 2010, it was already an unusual work of adaptation: He had taken the 1934 Bruno Schulz book Street of Crocodiles and painstakingly cut holes in its text, revealing words on multiple pages that combined to form new sentences, accumulating into a narrative Schulz never imagined. (Crocodiles is something of a remake magnet, having also inspired a stop-motion masterpiece by the Quay Brothers.)

On the weekend of Sept. 19 and 20, Park Avenue Armory staged something Foer would never have come up with on his own: Tree of Codes by choreographer Wayne McGregor, a restless dance artist who in the past has worked with Radiohead and Atoms for Peace. As a dance piece, even its most tangible connections to the book it is named for must be pointed out to the viewer: Jamie xx, who composed the score, is said to have integrated some of its text into the music, most of which is instrumental or contains sighing, wordless vocals.

The composer's band, the xx, took over this space last year in what was surely the most in-demand event the Armory has hosted. And as in that case, this time the most impressive element in a highly engineered collaboration turns out to be its staging. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, known for atmospheric installations that bend light and color to his will, created a multi-layered performance space whose windows and reflections grew more and more beguiling as the evening progressed.

Eliasson's work was the first thing visitors encountered. Before the show began, attendees walked through a mural-sized, prismatic riff on his work called Multiple Shadow House, which was shown in New York in 2010. But then the lights went down — to near-total darkness — and the stars came out, in the form of dancers whose black-clad bodies were invisible on stage except for the white light bulbs attached all over them. They were constellations come to life, first three, then many. Paired with the next scene, in which megaphone-shaped arrays of mirrors transformed performers' arms into strange beasts, it was an oddly disembodied entrance for the 15 dancers (from both McGregor's own company and the Paris Opera Ballet) whose bodies would be front-and-center the rest of the evening.

The score was arresting in those opening moments, a spare battery of hand-clap-like percussion. But it grew more familiar and accompaniment-minded as the focus shifted to dancing. Vocalists sighed melodically over electronic pulses and reverb effects while a stage full of dancers worked through the angular poses of McGregor's vocabulary. When dancers paired up for acrobatic love scenes, xx shifted to dance-floor beats. None of the passages had the structure of actual songs, but many could have been components for an xx album track or one of the composer's producing efforts. (One chunk, featuring an ethereal soprano reminiscent of Elizabeth Fraser, sounded like Jaime xx wishing he had emerged on the scene in time to be hired for a Cocteau Twins remix.)

Eliasson began to assert himself early on, using lighting design to cleverly direct our attention — suggesting we look not directly at the dancers but at their reflections in the wall-sized mirror behind them. Around the time the company members were trading their flesh-colored leotards for more colorful gear, he complicated things, dropping a scrim a few yards in front of that mirror that seemed to be made of plexi material with peculiar reflective properties. In the ballet's most captivating sequence, one pas de deux was set between those two planes and another at the front of the stage, with reflections such that the duo closest to the audience seemed to be projected, hologram-style, upon the bodies of the couple further away, while the further couple was reflected over and over into an infinite background.

That one staging conceit might have sustained an evening-long piece all by itself, featuring different combinations of dancers and music. But while McGregor's crew did work in a few variations (most notably a male dancer's solo in between the two reflective planes), Eliasson was soon introducing moving windows, tilting planes, and spotlight effects that sometimes made the audience part of the show. The production was nearing its close when some of these elements moved in such a way as to make audience members question their own eyes: Had that blue backdrop really been a different color all along? Was that orange spotlight that just passed over my face really green?

Dancers? What dancers?

Focus returned to the company soon enough, and the music, downshifting to its original chukka-chukka percussive groove, reasserted itself. But in the interpretation-of-an-interpretation hall of mirrors that was Tree of Codes, Olafur Eliasson's vision was clearest.