Olafur Eliasson on his set design for Tree of Codes

Olafur Eliasson, Jamie xx and Wayne McGregor’s touring ballet Tree of Codes has arrived in London for a week-long run at Sadler’s Wells. We caught up with Eliasson at creative conference Design Indaba to talk about the ambitious collaboration

Tree of Codes is inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s book-cum-artwork of the same name. Foer created the book by cutting out words from his favourite text – Polish author Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles – to form a new narrative. The book was published by Visual Editions in 2010 and received a D&AD Award for its die-cut design.

Eliasson, McGregor and Jamie xx used the text as a starting point to create a ballet that combines striking visuals and choreography with an emotive score. Jamie xx extracted shapes from the book and turned them into melodies via an algorithm – his score combines calypso music with pianos, synthesisers and vocals from Norwegian artist Okay Kaya – while McGregor created a dance for each of its 134 pages. Eliasson’s set design uses mirrors, holes, darkness and light to dazzling effect, reflecting both the book’s physical form and the flow of the performance on stage.

The piece was first performed at Manchester International Festival in 2015 and has since travelled to Paris and New York. It has received some glowing reviews: Pitchfork described the production as a “joyous sensory overload” and the Independent said it was “extraordinary”. Writing for the Guardian, Luke Jennings said the ballet lacked consequence but was “technically awesome” and praised McGregor’s “desire to bring cutting-edge effects and design elements to the ballet stage”.

The production was commissioned by MIF’s then artistic director Alex Poots (now director of New York cultural centre The Shed) and directed by McGregor. Eliasson and McGregor had previously discussed working together and both are fans of Jamie xx. Eliasson is also a friend of Foer’s.

“Alex knew that I knew Wayne and that we had discussed [collaborating] and he wanted to put us together,” explains Eliasson. “We discussed the fact that we would rather have a contemporary artistic music element than [something] more conventional and I had been listening to Jamie’s music in my studio while working quite a bit, so I thought [asking Jamie to do the score] was a great idea…. I think he is really brilliant, and I like the fact that his music is both very artistic and creative on a conceptual level and at the same time it’s very popular,” he says. “Jamie thought it was a great idea too and he had also made reference to my work, so it kind of just fell into place.”

The group worked on the ballet for two years in between other projects. They had an initial meeting to decide who did what and “what trajectory [the ballet] should take” before meeting again three months later to discuss initial concepts, says Eliasson.

“By that time, Wayne had already done a number of sequences of dance, which I then saw and filmed and I took that back to my studio, and then I did some ideas which I brought back to Wayne and I showed it to Jamie – something that contains darkness and very little light, how to illuminate the body – and that maybe fuelled the dance,” he explains.

Tree of Codes, 2015 by Wayne McGregor (director and choreographer), Olafur Eliasson (visual concept) and Jamie xx (composer). Opera House, Manchester, 2015. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes, courtesy of the artists and commissioned by Park Avenue Armory, Manchester International Festival, Paris Opera Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, and FAENA ART Miami © Olafur Eliasson

“The music went from being sound bites into longer scores, then they were mixed and changed a number of times,” he continues. “I think maybe the evolution of the piece was a kind of not-so-unusual workshop format, except that all of us being so busy, we could not meet every so often.”

Eliasson approached the project in much the same way as he would a museum or gallery piece, creating scale models of the set at his studio in Berlin and running various tests to see how it would look on stage.

“I built every part in smaller versions, bigger versions and had a whole sequence of pretty pragmatic experiments, playing it out and testing it. It was very similar [to creating a gallery or museum piece] and also some of the works are kind of related to earlier works and some of the new works became works in other shows, so it’s very ingrained in the studio life.”

Foer’s deconstructed story is played out in fragments by 15 dancers from Paris Opera Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor. The production begins in darkness, with dancers illuminated by small lights attached to their limbs. Lights glow like stars and come together as the dancers move to form constellations. Other scenes make clever use of contrasting colours, shapes and shadows: blue and pink and green tinted lights cut across the stage while shadows cast geometric patterns on the floor. Hexagonal shadows cast repeating reflections of dancers, creating a kaleidoscopic effect.

Eliasson is best known for his large-scale installations. He has created vast waterfalls in New York and Versailles, turned rivers green in Tokyo and Norway and filled the floor of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen with stones and silt to emulate a riverbed. His works play with perspectives and manipulate the senses, encouraging viewers to question their surroundings. They often demand physical interaction – for his hugely successful Weather Project at the Tate Modern, he filled the Turbine Hall with fog and an orange light glowing like a sun. Over two million people turned up to lie on the floor of the hall and gaze at their reflections in the mirrored ceiling.

This love of the spectacular and a fascination with movement and perception is evident in Eliasson’s work for Tree of Codes. Mirrors cast the audience’s gaze back at them while a roaming spotlight picks out their faces in the crowd, bringing them into the performance by making them aware of their presence and the voyeuristic act of watching the dancers on stage.

Olafur Eliasson
Tree of Codes, 2015 by Wayne McGregor (director and choreographer), Olafur Eliasson (visual concept) and Jamie xx (composer). Opera House, Manchester, 2015. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes, courtesy of the artists and commissioned by Park Avenue Armory, Manchester International Festival, Paris Opera Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, and FAENA ART Miami © Olafur Eliasson

“I think that sometimes, when watching something, we tend to lose ourselves and forget ourselves,” says Eliasson. “That can be good, but it can also be a kind of escapism and a certain kind of disconnect, bringing you into the role of being a consumer passively accepting the materials served to you. If I could bring some attention to you would call it the structural elements of a theatre, the fact that it is all constructed reality, and the construction of watching and being in the theatre is also constructed – there is nothing real about it at all – and if I can reveal that construction as a part of that experience, I think it could allow for engaging people in a slightly more productive way. Instead of being a consumer they become co-producer,” he adds.

Eliasson is fascinated with dance: he has followed McGregor’s work since he founded Random Dance in the 1990s and cites Oskar Schlemmer’s avante-garde Bauhaus production, the Triadische Ballet, as a source of creative inspiration.

“The history of the body, dance and music and so on I think has a very strong overlap with art,” he says. “The whole idea of embodiment and the role of the body and the idea of the dancer is something I think is quite close to my own work and my way of thinking.

Tree of Codes, 2015 by Wayne McGregor (director and choreographer), Olafur Eliasson (visual concept) and Jamie xx (composer). Opera House, Manchester, 2015. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes, courtesy of the artists and commissioned by Park Avenue Armory, Manchester International Festival, Paris Opera Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, and FAENA ART Miami © Olafur Eliasson

“I’m so curious about the muscle memory of the dancers … [take] maybe a sequence of one minute. When they think about it they can’t remember it as a visual representation in the head, but when they start the first few steps, the memory comes back as a sequence of time. This I think is so utterly inspiring – and the thing is my set design has that element of temporality, and very subtle temporal changes throughout the piece…. The set design is very focused on the sequential quality and the flow of [the performance],” he continues.

Performances for Tree of Codes at Sadler’s Wells have now sold out but the production will move to Miami after its run in London. It’s an innovative and ambitious project – and a great example of how combining three leading creatives from different art forms can lead to a new take on a long-established art form.

Tree of Codes ballet
Image above and top: Tree of Codes, 2015 by Wayne McGregor (director and choreographer), Olafur Eliasson (visual concept) and Jamie xx (composer). Opera House, Manchester, 2015. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes, courtesy of the artists and commissioned by Park Avenue Armory, Manchester International Festival, Paris Opera Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, and FAENA ART Miami © Olafur Eliasson

Tree of Codes is on at Sadler’s Wells, London until March 11. For details, see sadlerswells.com. Olafur Eliasson was speaking to Creative Review at creative festival Design Indaba. See designindaba.com for details of this year’s conference.

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