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Tree of Codes review: Jamie XX and Wayne McGregor's show lacks substance

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The work begins in muted tones, adding colour and layers as it progresses. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Tree of Codes has all the components you would expect for an outstanding work of contemporary dance.

An amazing set by Olafur Eliasson creates reflections of the dancers, carves the space into enormous geometric shapes and plays with augmentation of the body through mirrors and light.

A rich and layered musical composition by Jamie XX samples a classical piano solo, moody vocalisations and pumping electronic beats.

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The mixed ensemble uses both pointe shoes and flats. Photo: Ravi Deepres

And there is choreography by Wayne McGregor, a darling of Britain's contemporary dance scene and an artist who has effortlessly floated collaborations between his own company and ballet companies internationally. Tree of Codes employs dancers from Company Wayne McGregor as well as a few from Paris Opera Ballet. They intermingle recognisable upright balletic shapes with swooping, undulating body rolls, and mix pointe shoes with flats.

By all rights, this should be a masterpiece. It should be an outrageous, inspiring and transformative work of art. And yet …

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Optical illusions aplenty in Olafur Eliasson's design. Photo: Stephanie Berger

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Tree of Codes was ostensibly inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer's 2010 "book sculpture" of the same name. Foer excised words from Bruno Schultz's Street of Crocodiles (1934), leaving readers with a literary object defined by its missing elements.

We are therefore watching a kind of spinoff of a spinoff that actively exploits the missing links in someone else's art.

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The stunning look of Tree of Codes does not quite make up for a lack of substance.

The idea is brought to life in the beginning of the performance, where the dancers manifest as little moving lights in the inky darkness. We know there are humans there, but the image instead resembles stars connected by some invisible force.

Later, the images become kaleidoscopic, with bodies refracted through a series of reflections and mirrors.

McGregor's fans will know his style is disruptive in that his dancers force one another off balance, interrupt the body's natural momentum, or haul one another through the air in ways that actively avoid the habitual. This creative disjointedness is what usually makes his work interesting and surprising – along with an often relentless pace.

Here the dancers are like perpetual motion machines, scrambling to continue moving through phrases that grow increasingly convoluted.

But what should be finely honed, crisp and precise seems somehow muddy beneath Eliasson's evolving and revolving set of windows and mirrors.

As the work progresses, it gets increasingly harder to shake the suspicion that, despite it's bravado, bombast and what is essentially choreographic noise, this is a work that shouts without eloquence and that ultimately has very little to say.

Style – the stunning look of this work, it's nuanced sound and the absolute skill of the dancers – does not make up for a lack of substance.

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