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Alan Lucien Øyen is a Norwegian choreographer, writer, and director working around the globe creating dance works and full-length plays, as well as running his own company, Winter Guests. His work has spanned different performing crafts and is known for fusing different disciplines into a style that cannot be summarized in one word. He has just finished commissions on Nederlands Dans Theater and the Gibney Dance Company. He spoke with ICONS’ Charles Scheland about his career and his latest new work premiering at The Joyce Theater.
ICONS: What brought you into dance?
Alan Lucien Øyen: That’s a complicated one. Dance, in general, was through an advertisement in the newspaper: classes for boys, and I was the only one signing up. I think I was seventeen; I was dead-set that I was going to be a movie director. That was my dream since I was a young kid.
My father worked in a theater, so I grew up in a theater and was very used to that world. That was very familiar, but dance was completely from the sidelines. And even though I signed up for ballet lessons, I knew I wanted to be a contemporary dancer. I think I saw some shows with Carte Blanche, which is the National Contemporary Dance Company in Norway. That was inspiring. But anyway, I got into Oslo State School of Art.
On the first day of dance class, I was thinking, `Oh my god, I’ve made a huge mistake. Can I transfer to acting?` Of course, that’s not how it works, and I’d gone through the audition. I don’t know what I was thinking.
ICONS: And what specifically brought you into choreography?
ALØ: When I was in my third year of dance school, I was working a lot with the choreography students. I was kind of ghost-writing their applications for funding and their program notes and articulating their ideas. So quickly, even though I was studying to be a dancer, I was involved with the language of dance. I was not choreographing, but I was involved with the workings of how choreographers work. If you want to do independent work, you have to apply for funding and articulate your ideas. It’s kind of 99% that and then there’s the artistic bit. It almost feels unfair sometimes because it feels like the people who are good at articulating their ideas get the funding, but they’re not necessarily the best makers. And then in dance, articulating your ideas is something you do physically.
I was good at [articulating in words], so as soon as I graduated, it felt like I should send in an application on behalf of myself. I always wanted to do the “next” thing. I wanted to try new things, and I feel very grateful in my whole career that I’ve been allowed to explore different things. As soon as I started dancing, I wanted to choreograph. As soon as I was choreographing, I wanted to direct theater. And as soon as I was directing theater, I wanted to explore film and opera. And I’ve been allowed to explore all of this.
I don’t really see a difference between theater and dance. Of course, there is a difference in craft and technique. But if you look at what you’re trying to achieve, as a person facing other people in dialogue with an audience, I’m always trying to be credible and sincere. That’s what I’m always looking for in a performance. Looking for that element of truthful communication.
ICONS: You also write plays and direct in film and theater. How does other work, especially the writing, impact your choreographic process and work?
ALØ: I was always writing. I’m always taking notes. Something I overhear, or a random thought, a little sentence that will then send me off somewhere. I started creating work, and it was choreography with some words with it. And then I got more and more funding for my own company [Winter Guests], and I started working with more and more words. It started with little slivers of poetry, and then I wanted to explore more narrative work. And simultaneously I was commissioned to do dance pieces. So, then I kind of split my focus in two.
I developed more theatrical works for my own company and more choreographic work when I did commissions. For my own company, I started working with actors, and [my wrok] became plays; it was so narrative. And then in 2015 when I did a commission for Gothenburg operas dance company, the Artistic Director of the company, Adolphe Binder, said, `Can you make a piece for our company as you would for your own?` And I said, `Well, I work with actors,` so we had acting lessons for the dancers, and I tried to explore how to create text in work from a collective base.
So I would bring in an idea or thought and I would discuss it with the dancers as a group. And they would respond to the ideas with their thoughts. And sometimes I would give a writing assignment and sometimes I would use text that the dancers had written. But mostly, it’s inspired me to write other texts that incorporate some of their thoughts and ideas. And then maybe I would bring a text back and we would read it as a dialogue and more people would comment on it. And then I would go back and rewrite it. So it felt like having one big brain in terms of creating text with dancers. And a little bit similar to choreography, I try to do it in dialogue with the dancers as much as I can. And sometimes the text serves as a map for the movements but not always. And sometimes the text disappears and then we’re left with the movement or vice versa. And I kept exploring because I like to see dancers speak themselves and with movements that are subverting what they’re saying. Going with or against, playing with that. It’s inspiring.
I’m very preoccupied with the sense that there is content because movement is abstract and we can’t know what it means. A movement is just a movement, and we’re not able to decipher it. But at least if I know what it means then I’m going to express that meaning with my whole person. And I was very attracted in the early days to Frankfurt Ballet and William Forsythe’s work. That was very inspiring to me. And I discovered not long ago why I was so attracted to it. Because they never just `dance`; they’re problem-solving. They’re literally working or drawing or exploring. They’re completely engaged in something specific. And that translates. So I’m just trying to take that into a narrative context.
ICONS: Could you tell us about your experience creating on Tanztheater Wuppertal?
ALØ: I actually heard people label my work as dance theater. And I was thikning, Tanztheater, like Pina Bausch? No, it’s got nothing to do with that. And I refused the comparison. But then working with Tanztheater Wuppertal I was shocked at how at home I felt. And how natural it was, the way I worked, and how familiar it was for them. I was influenced by people who were inspired by Pina. I have ended up creating in a way that, because of my ignorance, I didn’t realize how strongly my work was [related to Pina’s]. And that’s fascinating because of the tremendous influence her work has had on people working in theater, perhaps more than dance. I don’t work with direct questions [as Pina did], but the way we work with conversations, provoking things that are both theater and dance and neither and trying to put it all together, I like it a lot.
ICONS: When it comes to actual movement creation when you find yourself making movement, do you find that that movement has a direct correlation to where you danced professionally with Carte Blanche and Pretty Ugly?
ALØ: When I actually make the steps myself, I’m sure you can see some lineage or history. I kind of almost hope so. I hope there is an element that is just me. But the way I love to approach the quality of movement is very much influenced by Amanda Miller [director of Pretty Ugly Dance Company]. Articulation without push is all from her. So yes, I think so. There must be some trace. And I try to avoid the pitfalls and clear copying of course.
ICONS: Your company, Winter Guests, is not really an accurate term for Winter Guests. How would you describe Winter Guests?
ALØ: It’s tricky. We have had different labels, and we keep sticking them on and taking them off. What are we trying to market ourselves as? Who are we really? We are project-based, still, which means that we have a body of people associated with the company, and a lot of them are actors. And a lot of the work we’ve done is plays and there hasn’t been any movement in it. You couldn’t sell it at a dance festival. Having said that, we’ve kind of infamously been at the wrong place: opened three-hour plays at dance festivals and opened dance performances at theater festivals. I think it took a long time to build a career because the work was hard to place for a long time. And it’s easier to kind of define things as dance theater, with that label. But Winter Guests is neither dance nor theater, but also both.
The last creation that I did, The American Moth, there was a lot of text in it, and also a lot of dance. STORY, STORY, DIE, which we’re touring now still, is very much a dance piece. There are no actors in it; it’s just dancers. Yes, they speak, but it’s very, very physical. So I consider it a dance piece. It’s more how the pieces are made. The process of how I created them informs me more about how I would define the work. So the piece we did call Simulacrum, that’s a tricky one, cause it’s so theatrical, but it’s so from the point of view of dance. The America trilogy that we did is all theater, all text. So it’s a theater and dance company. The work is a little bit like: you never know what you’re going to get.
ICONS: When you create for Winter Guests, or a commission, or this commission for Gibney, is there a staple that you have in every creative process? Then what is it?
ALØ: I always start by sitting the group down and having a conversation just to find out where we are in the world, to find out what we’re preoccupied with right now. To figure out what kind of piece we can and should be doing together. A tremendous amount of dialogue with the performers. I always say “we.” We can try this or what do you think. What about maybe doing it like this. I never say: ok you do this, you stand there, you say this, come from over there. I’m always opening it up to suggestions. This is sometimes frustrating when you have really clear ideas and you’re like: I really hope they’ll walk in that direction. But I don’t want you to walk in that direction unless you want to. Because you’re not gonna be convinced by it. So we need to arrive at the conclusion together for it to make sense.
I want to be moved and touched when I go to the theater. And I’ve said this before, but I believe in the cathartic way of the theater. So I try to achieve that, whether it’s movement or text, it’s the same. I always try to instill ownership or find ways for there to be a lot of ownership with the performers for the material.
ICONS: Specifically for the new work for Gibney, you started on Zoom, and then you were in person. What else was specific to the Gibney process?
ALØ: Sometimes you have an idea of what you want to do, yes, sometimes not. This time, not. I just tried to see where they were at. That was special. Getting to know them, and that, via Zoom first was strange and intimate and alienating all at the same time. And we took it further into the studio. We had little time. Short rehearsals over not too many weeks. So I was kind of amazed that we still managed to have this great process.
ICONS: Is there anything else you can tell us about the final piece before its premiere?
ALØ: No, not really. I don’t like to say too much about the work because I want you to see it with your own eyes. There are elements of spoken word, and there’s dance. I will say I was very excited to work with all of them.
ICONS: This is your New York debut, first time working with all of the artists, and first time working with the Gibney company, correct?
ALØ: Yes, and I was so impressed by the level of the people they have attracted. And also the whole social aspect of the company, that is, for me, very inspiring. To see how involved and passionate they all are about those projects that they all have put together. It doesn’t feel like a chore. I sometimes find, if you get this funding, you also have to do teaching or outreach they call it. And I feel like very often it’s approached as a chore, something you have to do because of the funding. But with them [Gibney company] it doesn't feel like that at all. Kudos to them.
ICONS: Is there any choreographic advice you would give your younger self?
ALØ: Do whatever you want to do. Don’t let anybody talk you into doing things you don’t want to do. Not that I ever have been, but don’t care about making work for anybody else. Because I was lucky to get funding early, I had a safe space. That’s a privilege and a gift. Therefore, I was allowed to just be myself and find my own work. `To thine own self be true.`
And one more piece of advice I would give to young people is: be nice. Be nice, life is short, it’s only theater. Dance and theater is social project, so you’re dependent on the people around you. So it makes no sense to me to not be nice. You can achieve so much more by listening to the world around you and working with people.
Alan’s new work on Gibney Company premieres on November 2, 2021, and runs through November 7, 2021.
Promo Video Link - Gibney Dance Company -- `In Process..`:
Another sample of Alan`s work, this time for The Wuppertal Tanztheater Pina Bausch:
More About Alan Lucien Øyen and his biography can be found at:
Photography in order of appearance
Photography © Linn Heidi Stokkedal, Headshot, Alan Lucien Øyen , 2012.
Photography © Scott Shaw, Lumberyard, choreography Alan Lucien Øyen, Gibney Dance Company, 2021.
Photography © Mats Bäcker, Bon Voyage, Bob, choreography Alan Lucien Øyen, Tanztheater Wuppertal, 2019.
Photography © Mats Bäcker, Story, Story, Die, choreography Alan Lucien Øyen, Winter Guests, 2019.
Interviewer: Charles Scheland
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc., September 2021 © All rights reserved.