They all have radically different movement histories

Growing up on the West coast of Norway, Alan Lucien Øyen watched lots of plays, dance performances and children’s theatre. He was raised in the local theatre where his father was a dresser. From the moment he began training as a dancer, he started creating his own pieces.

Since those early days, Alan Lucien Øyen has been invited to create choreographies for several companies, including Tanztheater Wuppertal. After the passing of Pina Bausch, he was one of only two choreographers to be offered that opportunity. With his own company, winter guests, he writes and directs theatre pieces. Last May his first dance theatre production with winter guests premiered at Dansens Hus Oslo.

Initially, you wanted to be a film director. What made you decide to become a dancer?

‘In my hometown Bergen there was a company called Carte Blanche. They were doing conceptual dance. I was so inspired by it, and I liked the physicality of contemporary dance. I wanted to be a contemporary dancer, but I started training in ballet. I wanted the technical tools. It’s the same as with drawing: first you learn to draw and then you can start doing action painting. As an artist you may want to turn something down, but it should never be because you can’t do it. If you turn something down, it should be out of choice. As soon as I started dancing, I also began creating my own work. My first, forty-minute solo consisted of text and improvisation. I worked with dancers and with text. Not much, but some’

Once you had reached your goal to be a dancer and choreographer, you turned to theatre. Why?

‘I have always liked text and theatre, and I had started working more and more with narrative. I was commissioned by dance companies and at the same time I had my own company, winter guests. Then I started hiring actors and also met this British playwright Andrew Wale During that time we did only theatre, although some of the work featured movement. The type of work like Story, Story, Die., where there’s nothing but dance and dancers using words, I haven’t done to such a degree with winter guests.’

Is writing text for theatre different from writing for a dance piece?

‘When I do theatre, I write with Andrew. We choose a topic and we each do our own explorations. When I make a dance piece, I’m alone with the dancers and there’s no text to begin with. Sometimes I’ll have a little map, like a poem almost. A little story that I’ll use as a source and that develops into dance. But often I won’t have anything. When I started working with Tanztheater Wupperthal there was nothing. I went into the studio with the dancers and the first thing we did was talk for two days. Then we knew where to go. For Story, story, die. we already had a topic. I asked the dancers to each write a text, to share things. For instance, to tell the story of their lives as if it were the beginning of this wonderful big book. I wanted to get to the essence of how they would fictionalise their own lives, because it is a project about the presentation and staging of lives and stories.’ 

What role do dance and text play? Do you use both as material? And does this process make the dancers co-creators?

‘Inside each text is one word or sentence that inspires me, and I take that and use it to write a separate text. So the texts in this piece are written by me, but they are based on ideas that came from my conversations with the dancers. With the exception of one, which was written entirely by one of the dancers.

The movement we developed the same way. Sometimes we used the text as a map. That was the premise of this work; we wanted it to be about content and how that is translated. So, we translated text into movement on a sliding scale. Sometimes very much one on one, with movements saying why. At other times it could be how something makes a dancer feel, then it was up to them to explore.’ 

During the creation of Story, story, die. you had a residency in Italy with two people in the cast. The other dancers and co-creators where scattered across the globe. How does that work? 

‘I work differently with each dancer. Some dancers I give a lot of attention, others almost make their own dance. Some joined late in the process, so they were creating movements in response to situations that were already in place, while we were already doing the mise-en-scene. It all depends on who they are, what our relationship is and when they enter the process. It’s all very compartmentalised. But a lot of the dance comes from them, it’s their voices in the project.’

Are their identities important to the performance? 

‘They are, absolutely. This project is all about the cross section between me and you and what is ‘me’ in a meeting between people. That is a notion that is based on expectations. There is this quote from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, about the pear and the onion. When you peel the layers off an onion, there is no core, there is no me. The me is just a mirror. That’s how society works. We are satellites. To what extent are we accommodating other people and erasing ourselves? That is one thing I’m curious about. During the creation process we talked about it at length. It’s a common phenomenon in social media where everyone is very much accommodating others. The thing that intrigues me most is what happens in between, when you feel like it’s you talking to yourself. This is a project that is about sincerity before anything else. It’s about truthfulness.

How/where do you find sincerity? 

‘I look inside the dancer, not at the movement. if you stay so close to form, you erase the inside of it. If you work with gifted people you depart from what they are offering. For instance, my speech pattern has a certain rhythm. So if you work with these people there is a form and a rhythm that is in synch with what they are telling you. So I’m interested in their thoughts and feelings, but also in their way of moving and their movement history. They all have such radically different movement histories, some have been trained by Batsheva Dance Company, some have gone to school in Taiwan. I’m looking for something that feels truthful.

Dance is pretentious by definition. People do not move like that, except out of affectation. If a dancer can move from inside a truthful place, then they will lose some of that pretence.’ 

Interview: Marcelle Schots, photo Alan Lucien Øyen by Massimo Leardini.