Sure, it’s way uptown, but the Park Avenue Armory routinely knocks it out of the park, serving monumental, genre-defying art to culture-hungry New Yorkers. (Witness the upcoming Laurie Anderson installation.) Tree of Codes, The Armory’s latest offering, is a sensory feast that combines visual art, contemporary dance, and electro-pop into a hypnotic immersive performance. Ballet or techno purists may split hairs over the resulting mash-up, but as a specimen of creativity and artistic collaboration, it’s a masterpiece.
The artists behind Tree of Codes are heavy hitters, and there’s no weak link in the bunch. The Armory commissioned director and choreographer Wayne McGregor, visual artist Olafur Eliasson, and Grammy-winning producer/composer Jamie xx to create a piece inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s eponymous novel. Tree of Codes, the book, is a challenging work of art itself. Using a different die cut on each page, Foer carved words and phrases out of a Polish collection of short stories titled The Street of Crocodiles, turning that book into a new narrative and imposing physical tome.
In both the performance and novel, layers are the name of the game. Entering the drill hall, the audience walks through beams of refracted light that throw a strata of technicolor shadows onto white walls (they also create an Instagram-worthy photo op). Eliasson’s set pieces fly in and out of the space, using reflection, color, and light to distort or enhance the dancers’ movements. It’s a game of dazzling peek-a-boo. Cutouts in the scenery echo those in Foer’s book. Electronic music is all about sonic layering, and Jamie’s score pairs pulsing bass with delicate piano and vocal melodies. McGregor cast ballerinas from the Paris Opera Ballet alongside dancers from his own Company Wayne McGregor, resulting in a mosaic of classical and contemporary styles.
Another theme is the absence of things, and Tree of Codes makes neat use of blank space. You can’t see the dancers during McGregor’s entire opening sequence. Wearing twinkling white lights as they glide across a pitch-black stage, the whirling dancers look like sea creatures at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The effect is otherworldly, and honestly, pretty trippy.
Jamie’s score plays out like an extended DJ set, and the confluence of fluid sound, light, and movement makes Tree of Codes disorienting and hypnotic. Another sequence uses kaleidoscopic mirrors to make the dancers’ limbs look like blooming flowers or sea anemones. Eliasson also uses mirrors to tease the audience and reflect faces in the crowd, involving spectators in the performance. Mirrors duplicate dancers as they move in front of or behind scenic elements, engaging real performers in a ghostly pas de deux with reflected partners.
Tree of Codes draws power from blurring the line between what’s real and not real and challenging the audience’s sense of perception. It’s also propped up by the star power of its innovative collaborators. The individual elements are dazzling, and the experience as a whole is cohesive and powerful. Now, where can we download the soundtrack?
“Tree of Codes” ends tonight, Sept. 21, with a sold-out performance at Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall