Tree of Codes, Manchester Opera House, review: Extraordinary ballet with stark score from Jamie xx is fecund with human creativity

It is directed with massive imagination by choreographer Wayne McGregor

Time to reflect: a rehearsal for the superb 'Tree of Codes', directed by Wayne McGregor (right)
Time to reflect: a rehearsal for the superb 'Tree of Codes', directed by Wayne McGregor (right)

It begins in darkness. Not a cold negative darkness. But a warm velvety one. A sound like clapping is heard. But the rhythm is complex, stuttering, syncopated, pulsing like a message – a message of genesis, of the genetic, of both.

The dancers on the stage can be seen only because of the round white lights on their limbs and trunks. They begin to move – in complicated earthbound crawling patterns then in rising sweeping falling arcs as they begin to draw themselves to their full unseen height. The stars on their bodies form constellations.

But where the heavens proceed with imperceptible glacial slowness these stars move with an accelerated speed, with grace, with lithe urgency. This is a story of billions and millions and millennia and centuries of years told in an elegant fast-forward.

The stars give way to mirrored hexagons, illuminated by the colour of the sun. The dancers behind are still in darkness, for humans have not yet appeared on this planet. Arms thrust through the shapes to create kaleidoscopes that catch the reflected external light. The forearms become human stamens in the world’s first flowers.

In Tree of Codes, an extraordinary new ballet at the Manchester International Festival, the natural order of the tree interacts with the created order of the code throughout. It is fecund with human creativity. Directed with massive imagination by the choreographer Wayne McGregor it has a stunning succession of simple visualisations by the artist Olafur Eliasson, and stark but highly evocative minimalist musical score from the remix artist-turned-composer Jamie xx.

The dancers of McGregor’s own company, and from the Paris Opera Ballet, are collectively and individually superb. With fluidity and deceptive ease they shift through muscle-defying depictions of the geometry perceived by the human brain – the contours of the alphabet, the cubes and crystals of science – and on to create an allusive history of humankind in snapshot sequences:

Adam and Eve emerging with primeval elegance from a jungle swamp. The athletic outlines of the Ancient Greek gymnasium as men learn to be individuals, partners and teams. The poses and postures of war, with the Other invoked by a red light and an alien gong. The dancer who conjures the birth of the Olympics with a single running hand held aloft. The chiaroscuro of Rapahel, Michelangelo and Caravaggio in Rob Halliday’s lighting. The fleeting allusion to human flight. The ordered chaos of the modern city.

Tree of Codes was first a book/artwork by Jonathan Safran Foer cut into the pages of another book. His incisions allow words on subsequent pages to project through to the present – a device for which Eliasson finds a correlative in a hall of mirrors. In the ballet’s most effective sequence its reflected regressions bring the past into the present, the naked to the clothed, the far-off to the near and the individual to the multitude of the civis.

Spotlights play occasionally across the audience. We can see ourselves reflected in the gigantic mirror at the back of the set making us aware that we too, with all our inadequacies and inelegance, are part of this human story.

Sometimes five stars are not enough.

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