Performing arts in Hong Kong

Tree of Codes review: visually arresting dance production needed more content and structure

  • Royal Ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Tree of Codes inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s book
  • Stunning visual effects and stage design by Olafur Eliasson, but content lacked variety and structure
PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 2:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 2:34pm

The biannual New Vision Arts Festival opened with a full-length production from celebrated British choreographer Wayne McGregor, inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, a book that sets out to be both literature and graphic art.

Foer took Bruno Schulz’s collection of stories, Street of Crocodiles and redacted most of the text, picking out words here and there to create a new story told in a visual way.

Such an abstruse concept is extremely difficult to interpret in terms of dance. While there are some stunning visual effects, thanks to Olafur Eliasson’s designs, the piece soon runs out of things to say and the content is not sufficient to sustain the running time of 75 minutes.

Well sung, well played, if confusing version of Puccini’s Turandot

McGregor works in contemporary dance and ballet, notably as resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet in London.

Tree of Codes was created in collaboration with the Paris Opera Ballet. Although the women don’t dance on pointe, the choreography is reminiscent of McGregor’s ballet work, with a mixture of essentially classical steps and the convoluted, gymnastic lifts which have become his signature.

While a few passages stand out, notably a powerful duet for two men, the choreography lacks variety. The frenetic pace and endlessly kinetic movement are exciting at first, but soon become monotonous. This non-stop action is tiring to the eyes (already sorely tried by having beams of bright light aimed at them from the stage – one of my least favourite theatrical gimmicks).

A piece of this length needs more contrast and structure – as it is, it seems to be constantly rushing without actually getting anywhere. Jamie xx’s electronic music, while enjoyable enough, suffers from the same repetitive nature as the choreography.

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The strongest aspect of the production is Eliasson’s visual concept. The piece opens in darkness illuminated only by small lights worn by the dancers, which create the impression of constellations moving in the night sky. During the rest of the show, cleverly constructed mirrors at the back of the stage combine with Rob Halliday’s excellent lighting to create multiple images of the dancers, moving through a spectrum of colours and sometimes seeming to float in space.

Striking and superbly executed though these effects are, the ideas are not new. (For instance the constellation effect featured in the 2015 Bi-Polar Bodies from Hong Kong’s own Daniel Yeung Chun-kong and Chen Jun, while an obvious example of the use of mirrors – albeit in a less intellectual context – is Philippe Decouflé’s iconic Upside Down for the Crazy Horse erotic cabaret, seen here in 2013.)

Nonetheless, Eliasson has certainly done a brilliant job of expanding the mirror concept – showing the audience its own reflection, watching itself watching the dancers, was a particularly clever touch.

The dancers performed with impressive energy and commitment (although it’s a pity none of the original Paris Opera cast appeared here) and the audience gave the piece an enthusiastic reception.

Tree of Codes

Company Wayne McGregor

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui

Reviewed: October 19, 2018