jamie xx scored a ballet and it is phenomenal
Tree of Codes is exactly the kind of original art that makes Manchester International Festival so unique.
Jamie xx loves to surprise. Like when he remixed an entire album by blues poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron (with spectacular results). Now he has composed the score for a ballet, inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer's book Tree of Codes and commissioned by Manchester International Festival; and it is absolutely phenomenal.
I haven't read Tree of Codes; or maybe I have. You see, it isn't the kind of book you pick up and read from page to page, cover to cover -- you read through it, inside it, around it. Safran Foer took his favourite book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and cut words out, physically, with scissors, so that you can see new words on the pages behind and in front of the the one that you are on. It morphs the meaning, leaps ahead, falls back, encouraging the words to dance through the book, rather than sit, inert in their place.
I tried to read Tree of Codes once, but didn't know how; perhaps afraid that I would read it incorrectly and wouldn't "get it". So it felt like something of a double whammy of confusion to go and see a ballet -- an artform I know next to nothing about -- inspired by a book I was afraid to try to decipher. But I rate Jamie xx, and I trust Manchester International Festival to deliver the unexpected, the fantastical and the sublime; though nothing could prepare me for what I saw, heard and felt.
Film directed by Ruth Hogben. Commissioned by Selfridges as part of Strength
It felt to me like an epic night out with a big group of friends -- like a pilgrimage to a Berlin techno club; you're all together and in the same place, but timelines and experiences of the night can run so differently. Groups break off to dance under disco lights, to sweat and move through pounding beats; others gather to chat in the smoking area as the rain falls on the quiet night outside; later, you break away in the still, cold morning light; and come back together in the warmth to discuss and interpret the evening's events, perhaps seeing them in a new light -- creating a rereading.
The soundscapes Jamie xx composed reflect the strength and delicacy of the dancers and their movements: sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, building, fading, shimmering, pounding. At one point there is just the sound of rain, at others distorted but urgent xylophone notes reminiscent of Loud Places, or strings, and sometimes lyrics. The line, "So in love, are we two; And we don't know what to do," is repeated over and over; words Jamie has said in an interview that he wrote the night he broke up with his long-term girlfriend.
Visual artist Olafur Eliasson (who put the huge sun in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall) created Tree of Codes' spectacular stage design -- a shape-shifting kaleidoscope of light, colour and reflection that transforms the space constantly during the 80 minute performance. It challenges your perception of what is there, and even of your role as a viewer. It forces you to look at yourself and to try to decipher your role as an active viewer -- a reader -- and not just a passive witness.
Tree of Codes - A Preview: Music and Design by Manchester International Festival
Dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor perform alone or in alternately forming and dispersing groups, doing different things all at once and forcing the viewer to see some, not all of the work -- reading a personal selection that will be different to any other audience member.
There will be those who know lots about ballet and can see references in Tree of Codes that I can't, and perhaps even people who have "read" the book will have insights that I don't, but what is so fascinating and so arresting about this performance is that it becomes obvious that you are supposed to have a different reading to someone else -- there is no "wrong" way of seeing it. That's something we're told all the time: that there's no wrong way of seeing art -- it's all interpretation -- but I have never felt that sentiment so powerfully and so personally as I did at this ballet.
Each audience member's interpretation may have been different, but the feeling was just the same, as the entire crowd were raised to their feet, clapping, cheering and whistling as the dancers and creators ran forward to bow, over and over and over again. The excited man next to me turned to say, "Wow, that was amazing!," asking, "Have you seen a lot of ballet?"; none, I answered, but I might do now. I might even give the book another go.
Tree of Codes: A Contemporary Ballet, until 10 July at Opera House Manchester, part of Manchester International Festival.
Text Charlotte Gush
Film directed by Ruth Hogben. Marie-Agnès Gillot from the Paris Opera Ballet and Travis Clausen-Knight from Company Wayne McGregor; created during the rehearsals for Tree of Codes. Commissioned by Selfridges as part of Strength.