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Alan Lucien Øyen's “The American Moth” Photograph by Annika Ostwald

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Alan Lucien Øyen on his new production, “The American Moth”

Writer, director, and choreographer Alan Lucien Øyen grew up with the theatre in his blood. As the son of a dresser, Øyen’s second home was a small theatre, Den Nationale Scene, established by Ibsen himself, in the town of Bergen, Norway. From age 17, Alan studied ballet and went on to dance with Norwegian national contemporary dance company Carte Blanche, and Pretty Ugly, Amanda Miller’s Cologne-based company. In 2006 Øyen founded his own touring company, winter guests, a multidisciplinary company bringing together actors, dancers, writers, set designers and technicians, where his uniquely emotional and dramatic dance-theatre could come to life. 

With winter guests, Alan has created a range of pure theatre works, dance works and hybrid pieces, layered with a cinematic overtone and stunning scenography. The works are based on real life experiences, sourcing material from interactions with strangers, personal anecdotes, and pop culture references, often incorporating the performers and the rehearsal process in the shaping of the final narrative.

Besides winter guests, Alan directs and creates work for theatre and dance companies worldwide, including Paris Opera, Gothenburg Opera’s Dance Company, Opera Flanders, Det Norske Teatret and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet where he is currently house choreographer. In 2018, Alan was one of the first two guest choreographers commissioned to create a full-length piece for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

I spoke recently with Alan by telephone, where we reflected on the complexities and affinities of life and performance, how one affects the other, and vice versa. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What have you been working on in the last two years? 

I created a play in Norway, “The Hamlet Complex.” We had the chance to perform it once with a limited audience and then back in lockdown. Last spring I made a piece for winter guests with actors and dancers called “The American Moth.” It is a huge piece that we have been working for many years. It was meant to open in 2020 and then it shifted due to the pandemic. It’s a coproduction between the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in the US, the National Theatre Hall Taipei in Taiwan, and the Internationaal Theater in Amsterdam, so a very big and challenging project.

Alan Lucien Øyen in rehearsal.

And can you tell me about the narrative and development of “The American Moth” and the meaning of the title? 

The piece is a combination of open and closed narrative. There is an ageing actress who is going through dementia and the relationship she has with her daughter. I have been always fascinated by memory, what is real and what isn’t, and what we make out as fiction of the past. I wanted to do something with dementia, when the memory of the past is distorted. When we started with this piece, we talked a lot about living with the demons, fears, and insecurities. Then we talked about monsters who really want to be loved somehow, and from there we went in the direction of dementia that can be scary and very ugly, aspects that are not often talked about. There is lots of aggression when empathy is one of the first things to disappear—which happens with dementia—so I wanted to have the most beautiful, tender old woman become this monster somehow. That was one of the transformation she went through. You see her struggle. As actress she has a role to learn but her script is full of holes because the lines are disappearing and I guess the idea of the moth came from there.

Last summer you told me you were in New York. What did you develop there? 

In New York I worked with the Gibney Dance Company which is a new and old dance company at the same time. It is quite exciting because they have a European-like contract, well paid and holidays which in America is quite rare. They invited me for their debut show at the Joyce, together with other two choreographers, Sonya Tayeh and Rena Butler. I made a piece called “The Game is Rigged.” It was exciting and very inspiring working with those very talented dancers. I was there in the middle of July during the pandemic so we had to have special papers to go and many zooms in between but finally, the show was premiered in November. 

In September I worked for NDT1. I had the opening show at the new house, “Amare.” It was a double evening with me and Sharon Eyal, where she made a remount of an old piece and I made a new one. It was the first time I worked with NDT and it was fantastic, with amazing dancers, real artists. It was a new experience in general because it was the first season of the new director, Emily Molnar—new house, new dancers, new choreographer. So it was a big event for everyone involved. It was a big honour to be part of that and also a big responsibility yet exciting and good. The title is “Tell your mum you love your skin” and it was a piece about the complexity of identity. It’s such a topic in the world right now and it has been for quite a while. I feel it is a topic particularly for NDT as they have lots of discussions about this. I went there wanting to make a piece about identity itself. I am fascinated by the way we portrait ourselves, who we are, how we are perceived. They have a dancer who is transgender and transitioning so it was very nice working with her and hear her stories, and at the same time working with gender conforming dancers and non-binary. They are so free in their way of thinking, of challenging the norms and their ideas are quite inspiring.

You often work with dancers and actors. How does it work for you as choreographer/director communicating with both? 

I try to be the same person, but I guess I change when I work with different people. It tends to be a fine line within the project, so I would say it depends on the people I work with. In every case though, I spend lots of time to familiarise [myself] with the company and the company with me so that we can have a good dialogue. I am afraid of groups so this is a non-authoritarian way to work with theatre groups and dance companies. When I work with a dance company, now that I work with NDT for example, I try to come in with some directions but not ready material and I see what the process brings. Sometimes it is amazing what comes out. At times I bring a piece of writing and we discuss it. Sometimes they bring their own stories that I tend to change. First of all to make them universal, and secondly to make them not private so although the performers still feel that it’s their story, they are somehow protected.

The other way is when I do straightforward plays like “The American Moth.” I wrote it together with Andrew Wale who is the playwright I work with for many years, and sometimes we write an entire script before the first rehearsal. This is a different method. With “The American Moth” was a bit of an exchange because it was such a long process and we got ideas from the performers as well. I would say that I use different strategies for different people. Between dancers and actors there are and aren’t huge differences at the same time. At the end each performer is a person on stage that wants to communicate. I am interested in a performance that feels very sincere, truthful and that I can relate to. 

Winter guests perform “Story, story, die” by Alan Lucien Øyen. Photograph by Mats Bäcker

You often use texts of the performers as an integral part of the work. How does that process work? Are the stories narrated by the performers a mix of reality-fiction?

Most of the times is just conversation and I will take some notes and other times we even record. Dialogue is always part of the process. Then I create my own version of the stories that I have heard. So out of stories I imagine other stories and this is the translation-transformation of the stories shared in the first place. And that fiction then becomes the truth of the stories we put on stage. I like that because it removes a little bit from the actors’ and dancers’ personal stories, and it puts me in the driver seat of the staged story. I feel that’s my way of shaping and participating in the discourse. It is all fiction but I am sure I am informed by the conversations we had because I wrote them when we were there working together. 

And how do you work with dancers? Do you give them directions and ideas or you suggest movement and you let them improvise and create phrases?

Also in this case is a combination and it depends on who I work with. In the ‘old days’ I would make all the movements by my self. Then, in 2015 when I started working with Gothenburg, I realised they had so much experience and such creativity creating movements that was more relevant and interesting to create in a dialogue with them. So I try to set them off in different directions and find ways to generate movements that they are not so used to, to challenge them, to get away from how they would normally create. But I am very preoccupied with content in the sense that movement is abstract. I try to lead the dancers to say something concrete with movements. I try to find different ways of encouraging the dancers to work with real content knowing what they are creating, what they are saying. Sometimes is writing what they do which is never shown or heard, some other times is writing that I bring in with the inspiration from somewhere. So there is an element of translation going on and lately I thought that I have always had a strong attraction looking at Frankfurt Ballet and Forsythe’s work because I saw the people working. I didn’t see them dancing, they were drawing circles and lines being very engaged in something I didn’t know what it was, but it drew me forward. It’s like for actors, there are not just words they have to recite, there is the work behind the words that is the interesting part of the process, and I feel that also dance needs that.  

Winter guests perform “Story, story, die” by Alan Lucien Øyen. Photograph by Mats Bäcker

Lately I reread The Little Prince, a book that in my opinion every adult should read regularly to remind ourselves that once we were children. On that note, if the Little Prince asked you what is the essence of your work, what would you answer? How would you describe the nature and the identity of your work to a child? 

I think my work is something that I do, we do to try to understand why and who we are. It’s funny and quite uncanny that you mention The Little Prince because I am working with Alexander Desplas on a piece that will open in November, and for a long time I said let’s do The little prince. And then I kept questioning the choice thinking I don’t want to do a piece for children. And the director of the theatre told me that I have absolute carte blanche being a new creation so I could abandon my first choice. Now I am very inspired by this essay by James Baldwin, “Nothing personal” wrote in 1964. His writing is phenomenal and so at the end I don’t know if it will have nothing to do with the little prince. That was the starting point but you see? Talk about serendipity!

Your works are like voyages in the subconscious, acute and sharp. Do you have any familiarity with psychology? What fascinates you the most about human dynamics?

This conversation reminds me of this thing that I say a lot. We should not judge, we must not judge, I don’t want to judge, I want to understand. When I was saying the monsters want to be loved, I was inspired by this quote by Rainer Maria Rilke that inspired a lot the last production.  “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. So you mustn’t be frightened, if a sadness rises in from if you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realise that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.” And I think most of the times I am looking for these characters that are in need for some sort of understanding. It doesn’t always work but at least it’s an attempt. I try to because nothing is black and white, nothing is good and bad. It is just a series of causes and effects and those are very interesting to study.

What do you consider essential in your creations? 

Music is a huge inspiration for me and one of the most important tools working with theatre. The commitment of the people on stage, their experience, their personal skills and characters, then the people involved, people I work with, everyone involved, because theatre is such collaborative work, and of course communication. 

Which shows are premiering and touring in the upcoming months?

The premier in Gothenburg is on the 17th of March, then we tour with “Story, story, die.” the whole spring. We start with Lyon in March and then Spain and lots of Canada. The creation that I was supposed to do when the lockdown happened at the Paris Opera, I will do it now, premiere in the Fall season and that’s “The little Prince” project that might turn into something else. Then I will help Tanztheatre Wuppertal to remount “Sweet Mambo.” I am going there in April to work with them, and I am very much looking forward to it because it’s with all of the original dancers. Some have already retired and come back for this, but it’s one of the last shows with the whole group so I feel grateful to have that experience with them.