When I saw Tree of Codes at 2pm on Wednesday I was very anxious, which is inconvenient for writing a review. It makes me think how strange it is to have booked a ticket to a very expensive show, and then to show up and not quite be in the mood. It’s almost unfair. You try to will yourself into the headspace where you will be most receptive to this potentially transformative piece of high art, and sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. It sometimes depends on what kind of show it is – sometimes I can work through the intellectual ideas of a work, but can’t engage with it at that emotional-sensory level. Sometimes vice-versa: occasionally I am frustrated that because I’m writing a review, I have to think rather than just letting it wash over me. It’s sometimes hard to accept that your experience of a show will never be equal with everyone else there, and that’s part of the wonderful, chaotic thing about live performance.
The program, however, offered no insight into any of the ideas the show was hoping to engage with. It did promise Tree of Codes to be “utterly all-consuming”, anecdotally deserving of standing ovations, and “one of the rare events that will likely go on to influence local artists for years, perhaps decades to come.” It’s a little distressing to have your experience of a work seemingly pre-determined. You can get into a headspace of, ‘Am I experiencing this the right way?’ and start judging yourself for feeling the wrong way, even though this is something we usually have little control over. This feeling of judging yourself for having the ‘wrong’ experience can sometimes ironically dominate the experience itself. After watching Tree of Codes for a while, yearning for a deep shift within myself, I learned to resist the command of the program notes.
Lights shine on the audience. The stalls, the balcony, the circle become a desert landscape of bodies, as a jagged beat pounds. A moment to reflect on where we are, who we are, in this room together, before plunging into the dark.
Stars appear onstage, stuck onto human-sized masses in the dark, who leap into spinning, conversational dance. It’s not the spectacle I was expecting and seems a little underwhelming and immediately makes me think of eye candy commercials put out by brands like Samsung but I try and reorient my expectations. The dance is more interesting than the lights, and as the stars fold onto and through themselves, I start to wonder if these are human bodies I am in fact looking at. It might be a trick of the light, but it almost looks like the dance is being performed by some kind of fluid, self-assembling swarm of futuristic robots. At this early point in the show I was ready to believe that Wayne McGregor had eschewed human dancers to choreograph a work for futuristic robots with lights strapped to them.
The humans appear, naked but sexless, like future eunuch bodies in service of some strange techno-aristocracy. The choreography, which seems to defy gravity and various other rules for having a human body, seems intent on driving home the point that I quite simply cannot perform it, and never will be able to. Quite honestly, it hurts, especially on seeing the show alone. There is so little to relate to, so much reason to feel like an outsider.
The other day, I saw a video of a contortionist on Facebook. When I watched it alone on the train, it made me feel insecure about my body, the ways in which I feel like the skill is beyond my reach. Later, I showed it to a friend, and we laughed and had a great time watching the contortionist, because it makes you squirm, but blanketed in another feeling, of how ridiculous it is to spend your time being a contortionist, when you could spend your time with your friends. It doesn’t matter that I’m not in the contortionist club. It may be necessary for your enjoyment to realise that Tree of Codes is equally ridiculous, and as I discovered later, equally fun to laugh about with friends. This will help to take the existential pressure off having bought an expensive ticket to see some Great Art by Great Artists. And taking the pressure off is the only way to really appreciate the visual, choreographic, sonic and above all technical dimensions of this strange, layered performance.
As for all the colour-changing glass, costumes, weird spotlights on the audience, sound, large mirrors and plexiglass reflections, I really don’t have much to say. It was impressive and weird and visually fun, all to the tune of new Jamie xx music, which is nice, and I don’t think there’s much more to it than that. I don’t think it should offend the artists too much to say that it seemed to offer a glimpse into a certainly surreal future in which the bulk work of artists can be easily replaced by algorithms or artificial intelligence. Tree of Codes celebrates our android lives to come, and can’t wait for your mere human emotions to catch up.