Review: ‘Tree of Life’ a vibrant telling of evolution story

This review of the “Tree of Life” at the Lied Center is by Chuck Berg, KU professor of theater and film. He can be reached at

Creation stories are the stuff of myth, religion and science.

Expressing the human need to understand one’s place in the cosmos, they have at once united and divided our attempts to live productively in peace.

The politicizing of creation narratives, a global phenomenon seen in the ideological battle lines drawn between science, democracy and fundamentalist faiths, continues to be fractious. At stake are civil rights, health care, education and a host of issues central to how we might best govern ourselves.

These debates will and must continue.

How nice, though, to have the archetypal creation narrative recast in artistic terms that capture the sense of wonder in its mythic as well as scientific roots. That is precisely what “Tree of Life: Origins & Evolution” accomplished in its premiere performance at the Lied Center on Friday night. And additional performance is at 7:30 tonight.

Transcending ideology and bringing together artistic resources from across the KU campus, “Tree of Life” pulsed to an exceptional original score by artist-in-residence David Balakrishnan, the Grammy Award-winning violinist and founder of the Turtle Island String Quartet.

Scored for string quartet (Balakrishnan and his Turtle Island colleagues) and winds (the exceptional KU Wind Ensemble under the direction of Scott Weiss), the music set and re-set the moods with accents ranging from the ancients to Native American, Indian and hip big band jazz ala Gil Evans’ collaborations with Miles Davis.
The music also provided the base for the exuberant choreography of Muriel Cohan and Patrick Suzeau and the inspired dancers of the University Dance Company. Equally stunning were Mark Reaney’s vibrant visual designs which came to animated life thanks to subtly deployed virtual reality technology.

The dynamic interplay of music, dance, moving image and design was set up effectively with poetic introductions by Dennis Christilles. Invoking the heritage of Greek drama, the antiphonal repartees between speaker and chorus resounded with its own kind of musicality.

The narrative spine was cued from each part’s title: one, “The Cultural Tree: Tree of Spirituality, Myth and Stories”; two, “The Scientific Tree: Tree of All Life, Technology and Science”; and three, “The Intertwined Tree: Tree of Respect, Life and Hope.”

The staging was superb in its simplicity. Using two tiers connected by two arching platforms, the two groups of dancers — apes and humans — joined together in whirling circular patterns around the Tree of Life leaving us with a provocative reframing of the story of our “origins and evolution.”

Other members of the creative team deserving kudos include Delores Ringer (costumes), Del Unruh (lighting), Matt Jacobson (media), and director John Staniunas who brought the effectively paced show in at under an hour.