CreativeReview

From book to ballet

Tree of Codes, choreographer Wayne McGregor’s new ballet, is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name which was published by London-based Visual Editions in 2010. The book is characterised by its heavily die-cut pages – an act of ‘erasure’ carried out by Safran Foer on author Bruno Schultz’s book, Street of Crocodiles, which enabled a new story to appear out of the remaining text (even the new title is ‘cut’ from the original). Premiering at the Manchester International Festival in July, McGregor’s ballet is also one of a string of recent collaborations that have brought together dance, art and design while establishing a challenging interplay between audience and performer.

BELOW: Cover and pages of Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer, published by Visual Editions in 2010. Safran Foer created his text by removing words from a pre-existing novel, Bruno Schultz’s Street of Crocodiles, enabling a ‘new’ story to appear from what was left behind on the page. 

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Events such as last year’s Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works at Raven Row, the Musée de la Danse project at Tate Modern in May and New Movement Collective’s appearance at the Barbican’s Station to Station series of ‘happenings’ during the summer have pointed to the visual crossovers and shared territory that occurs between the ‘performing’ and the ‘visual’ arts. McGregor’s Tree of Codes kept dance on the stage but utilised the input of artist Olafur Eliasson, who developed the visual concepts for the set and lighting design, and remix artist Jamie xx, who composed the score. Together they brought the physicality of Safran Foer’s book to life.

In appearance, Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes has a visual relationship with concrete poetry and Tom Phillips’s The Humument and yet, uniquely, Sara de Bondt Studio’s design for the inside pages sees negative space cut away from the object. The design therefore leaves few words on each page and, in turn, reveals the preceding pages to the reader. This layered effect allows for an interplay between foreground and background pages, and subsequently, between present and future events in the narrative.

As a powerful extension of publishing, McGregor’s ballet began as an abstract interpretation of the book’s eye-catching black and red fingerprint cover design by Jon Gray (Gray318). In dance form, these fingerprints were translated into lights which marked the joints and long lines of the dancers’ bodies who performed in a full blackout lit only by their costumes. In a similar way to how the fingerprints on the book’s cover are a human touch, without being a revelation of particular characters in the story, these lights represented movement patterns in the choreography without revealing the individual dancers (from Wayne McGregor | Random Dance and the Paris Opera Ballet). The piece enticingly revealed the kinetics – the fundamentals of the body – before showing the bodies themselves.

Transparent coloured partition panels and reflective surfaces fragmented images of dancers on stage. Ballet photography: Ravi Depress
Transparent coloured partition panels and reflective surfaces fragmented images of dancers on stage. Ballet photography: Ravi Depress

In contrast, the second scene in McGregor’s work began with a seemingly empty stage flooded with light. As the stage slowly became populated by dancers dressed in flesh-coloured costumes, it was as if the cover of the book had been peeled back and the near naked pages were laid before you. Eliasson’s set designs included elaborate mirrored surfaces, revolving geometric forms and semi-transparent partitions. “I was fascinated by the fact that the book has a very physical impact, turning the act of reading into a sculpting of space and narrative over time,” he states in the programme. “Despite its cavities and its explicit absence of matter, which is of course an absence of both paper and words, the book is intensely rich.”

MIF15 Tree of Codes 9 Ravi Deepres
Wayne McGregor worked with artist Olafur Eliasson on the visual concept fro Tree of Codes ballet, which included the lighting and set design. Ballet photography: Ravi Depress

This interpretation of the book’s physical attributes saw Eliason’s stage partitioned, separating upstage from downstage, with dancers on either side of the set, somewhat obscured by transparent coloured panels. Other set pieces were comprised of reflective surfaces which created a range of illusions – showing the front and back of the dancers simultaneously, multiplying their image, or reflecting the audience onto the stage. The book infused the experimental soundscape, too – composer Jamie xx’s score was built using an algorithm that took the word spacing of the die-cuts to form the rhythm and structure.

MIF15 Tree of Codes Ravi Deepres
Jamie xx’s score was based on the word spacing of the die-cuts in Safran Foer’s book. Ballet photography: Ravi Deepres

It would be shortsighted to expect every plot point to be visible in the contemporary ballet’s narrative, especially as Tree of Codes is already limited by the verbiage of Schultz’s original work. McGregor’s creation is something new – it nods to its sources but is a spectacle all of its own. McGregor has written that “the choreography attempts to ingest these generative moments into a visceral experience, charged with a true emotional temperature”. It is loaded with complex lift sequences, includes intimate exchanges between dancers through physically demanding choreography and takes full advantage of the strengths of the classical and contemporary cast.

The opportunity to see this production again – in another space and time – may not arise for several years, if at all, but what remains of interest is the potential for powerful results yielded from interconnected, cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Here, a book became a ballet. An experimental piece of visual writing was interpreted by an artist, composer and choreographer, who translated its somewhat fragile physical attributes into something which expressed strength through the sculpted bodies of its cast, bold minimalist score and fantastic sets. It was an elaborate homage to an already sumptuous work of art.

Inspired by the book (and by Sara de Bondt’s design and Jon Gray’s cover), choreographer Wayne McGregor created a ballet of the same name. McGregor worked with artist Olafur Eliasson and producer Jamie xx on the project, which premiered in July at the Manchester International Festival. Ballet photography: Ravi Deepres
Inspired by the book (and by Sara de Bondt’s design and Jon Gray’s cover), choreographer Wayne McGregor created a ballet of the same name. McGregor worked with artist Olafur Eliasson and producer Jamie xx on the project, which premiered in July at the Manchester International Festival. Ballet photography: Ravi Deepres

Sarah Snaith is a design writer and editor and teaches contextual and theoretical studies at London College of Communication. Tree of Codes is published by Visual Editions, visual-editions.com. Wayne McGregor’s Tree of Codes ballet featured soloists and dancers from Paris Opera Ballet and Wayne McGregor | Random Dance and appeared as part of the Manchester International Festival in July, mif.co.uk. It was also staged at the Park Avenue Armory in New York in September

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