On Breadth and Depth: Attention Shifts in TREE OF CODES at the Park Avenue Armory
The creators of TREE OF CODES want us to think: about space, form, and ourselves. For this multidisciplinary performance (a collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor, visual artist Olafur Eliasson, and composer Jamie xx), the interior of the Park Avenue Armory has been meticulously arranged to constantly remind us of its contours and of our own bodies in relation to that space. The cavernous entrance doors open into the back of the performance platform, and—far across that platform— we are immediately confronted with the vast risers where we will soon find our seats. On the way to those seats, we are asked to consider a pair of large facing white walls, where a light installation reflects multiple (and multicolored) shadows as we pass.
As soon as we turn and sit, we receive the striking inverse of our first vantage—the rectangular open space of the entrance, echoing the performance’s inspiration—the die-cut book TREE OF CODES (a novel/art object by Jonathan Safran Foer, made by excising fragments from Bruno Schulz’s story collection STREET OF CROCODILES). Shuttered doors and windows in that same wall prompt reflection on the ideas of doors and windows, and how they shape a space and dictate movement through it.
In the 90 minutes that follow, 15 accomplished performers (from the Paris Opera Ballet and McGregor’s own company) are in perpetual, dizzying motion. So is Eliasson’s set/installation, as huge geometric forms and mirrors appear, disappear, and unfold kaleidoscopically behind and even occasionally in front of the dancers. The idea of mirrors, both literal and figurative, cycles in throughout the evening, as Rob Halliday’s lighting prompts us—sometimes subtly, sometimes not—to consider our own mirrored reflections and role in the event as audience.
Admittedly, I’m not a dance professional, but my recollection of the bodies in motion is far less specific than that of the ideas surrounding them. The movement vocabulary is interesting and the dancers fantastically athletic, but there’s an intentional, intellectual coldness to the proceedings. These are bodies as ideas, and as those bodies whirled and contracted, I found my mind more often that not considering them almost exclusively as abstractions. The press release describes how happy the Armory is to “animate the drill hall with the intense beauty of dance,” and that goal feels spot on—the dance here is not the end, but the means and medium to externally project our ideas on form, space, and self-as-audience.
Rather than aspiring toward more traditional humanist goals, the creators are asking us to engage with a quality of attention that seems to be increasing in our age of perpetual networked connections—light, quick, and constantly shifting. That kind of attention has its critics (see Nicholas Carr’s THE SHALLOWS, which bemoans the death of deep reading in modern times). But even those critics acknowledge that the cultural drift feels inescapable…as we move into a world where we are always aware of our own existence as nodes in a global network, we inevitably trade in some degree of deep attention and empathy for a fizzier, wider-ranging kind.
TREE OF CODES is a blur of moving echoes— from the geometric sets, to the far-sounding snippets of an old pop song, to the infinite reflections of bodies in a cleverly placed pair of mirrors onstage. The upside is that our minds are free flit from echo to echo, at our discretion. The downside is that the event itself can feel diffuse—we spend out time considering the reflection of a reflection of a reflection (or a cutout of a cutout). And adding constant awareness of self prevents, by definition, the loss of self that traditionally goes hand in hand with deep absorption and empathy.
I remember, however, one striking exception to the feeling of distanced abstraction, and it occurred when there was the least to look at. Early on—after those huge entrance doors are shut—we are wrapped in total darkness. The only illumination comes from lightbulbs embedded in the dancers costumes, and these moving shapes create delightful contradictions. Here are bodies in motion, but the dots along them form shapes not like bodies at all. And then, suddenly—in the middle of all these blossoming and collapsing of points of light—a single human figure rose up: striking, iconic, triumphant. I felt an undeniable thrill of recognition at the sudden appearance of the human form. For better or for worse, culture is drifting toward a more dispersed, rapidly-shifting-focus direction. But for better or for worse, that momentary human form is the image I remember.