Alan Lucien Øyen

Alan Lucien Øyen: “If I think of the historical weight of the project, it will break me”

As the son of a dresser, Alan Lucien Øyen grew up in a small theatre; the Den Nationale Scene (established by Ibsen himself) in the town of Bergen, Norway. Here he would watch theatre religiously from the age of seven: classical productions as well as contemporary masterworks. Inevitably, he went on to establish himself as a writer, director and choreographer, winning international acclaim that did not go unnoticed by one of the most pioneering dance theatre companies in the world, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

A decade on from the tragic loss of its founder, Alan was the first choreographer in that time, alongside Dimitris Papaioannou, to be invited to create a new dance work for the company – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would carry a huge weight of responsibility for even the most self-assured of artists. We spoke to Alan about the challenges of the creative process, meeting the dancers for the first time, the influence of cinema and his earliest memories of the iconic Pina Bausch.

Can you describe the moment you were asked to create a new work for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch?

I remember standing in the midst of winter outside the white marble Opera House in Oslo watching the frozen fjord.  My fingers were similarly frozen from holding the phone talking to Adolphe (the company’s former Artistic Director). I remember the moment as I hung up the phone as completely still. A feeling of total humility, for sure – but also tremendous excitement. The moment’s burnt into my mind.

When did you first encounter the work of Pina Bausch?

My first encounter with Pina’s work was a little clip played back on a VCR in dance history class in 1998. I was still a young student at the time, completely underexposed to the world of dance. I believe it must have been a scene from the Chantal Akerman documentary One Day Pina Asked. Nazareth, Helena, Bénédicte, Dominique, (all the legendary performers that are still in the company), were dancing and waiting in the sun in the courtyard of Palais des Papes in Avignon.

I remember thinking this was so strange. I couldn’t understand. It broke all my preconceptions and expectations of what I knew dance and theatre to be. It was strange – and wonderful!

“This is also dance…” said our teacher, Roy Lie Jonassen, in response to our feathered faces. “What else do you want to see?!”, shouted Dominique Mercy, from the flickering TV screen as he did his tours en l’air and déboulés. I wanted to see all of it…

But, by the time I first got to see Pina’s work live on stage, she was already dead it was Viktor at Théâtre du Châtelet, September 2016.

Always when experiencing Pina’s work, I feel this tremendous excitement: a reinforcement that the stage is a truly wonderful, magical place where everything can, and should, happen. As a creative artist I feel liberated when seeing her work, and afterwords:  moved, saddened and stricken… It has such tremendous impact. 

Alan Lucien Øyen in rehearsal with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

What was your first day in rehearsal like?

Walking into the Lichtburg, not knowing where to put my bag; knowing it was a ‘temple’ (that’s what it felt like). And there was an empty seat in the room. You could feel it. Wherever I looked was history, and humility: her dancers.

I remember my voice trembling as I first spoke to them – we were sitting in a large circle, all 36 dancers and myself. We spent three days sitting in that circle, getting to know each other. It was overwhelming how generously they opened up to me. Sharing their history, their lives. This is something I will never forget. 

The next three days we didn’t speak – we worked.  I remember crying through closed eyes, and smiling through tears as they presented their movements, scenes and ideas. “Close your eyes and I’ll dance for you”, said Julie Shanahan. The whole experience was a tremendous gift. I realise now it was their way of welcoming me, telling me – telling all of us – it will be ok.

This was the first time the whole ensemble created together after Pina. I’m so honoured to have been part of that experience. All of her dancers – young and old – are incredible. I’m in awe of all of them and still somewhat in a state of disbelief to the fact I’m offered to work with them.

Rehearsals for Bon Voyage, Bob

How do you approach the creative process with a new dance work?

I wait. My work always begins and ends with the performers. We wait together. Whether it is creating text or movements – theatre or dance – it always originates in encounters with real people and real stories: the performers themselves. Fictionalised realities of real encounters.

We will spend a lot of time getting to know each other, so that together we can create the performance that best fits us now. I want to learn from them; from their experience. From their lives just as much as their experience from the stage. I’m working with a cast of 16 dancers, many with a lifelong experience from working with Pina, and some newer members to Pina’s family, who have already been affected by her work.

As for now, we wait.  Until something catches our attention, something strange or unusual that beguiles us, that we together can draw from, to create a new work. Life’s a waiting place… but “there is beauty in waiting”.

The more I learn of Pina’s works and her process with her company, the more I realise how tremendous her influence was on the world of performing art: how we create new work of theatre and dance today.  The weight of Pina’s legacy is tremendous.

I had no idea how strong an influence she has had on my own work, through the knowledge that I have inherited from my teachers and choreographers that I have worked with, who in turn have been looking to Pina for inspiration and new ideas.

The world is a small island. It’s strange, but creating in Wuppertal feels a bit like coming home.

How does cinematographic art influence your work and choreography?

I usually say that my pieces on the stage are excuses for not making movies. There is a truth to that, and I certainly go to great lengths to simulate, and borrow from film. I work a lot with collective memories in my work: universal stories that we believe to be our own. Cinema and television are great providers of these stories and memories that we all share. To me, therefore, it’s incredibly fluid and natural to look to cinema.

As an audience we are very trained in the codes and rules of this highly visual medium. I try to play on these rules when working with light and sound in the theatre and when looking at choreography. The world of film is also a world of stories – I love to discover and learn from other people’s lives through the stories we tell. I’m very happy to be working on the stage, though, because there is a sincerity to be found in the live expression, never to be matched by any moment on screen.

A scene from Alan Lucien Øyen’s Bon Voyage, Bob

Tell us about the piece you have created, Bon Voyage, Bob.

When people ask me what the piece is about I usually say I can’t say. Because the process – the conversations between the dancers and myself, with movements and words  – will dictate this. And the process of a new work is something constantly shifting. I’m extremely interested in the current contradiction between fiction and reality. In the breaking point between the two. This is a recurring topic in my work: how we human beings invent our own narratives as we clamber through life. At the end of the day, my main interest is human beings.

How do you deal with the pressure of historical weight?

I try not to think of it. If I think of the historical weight of the project, it will break me – so I don’t. I’m lucky to sleep well at night. I have a good sleeping heart, as we say in Norway. But I have to keep pinching my skin every time I think of this tremendous opportunity, to reassure myself that I’m not dreaming.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch return to Sadler’s Wells with the UK premiere of Bon Voyage, Bob from 22 – 25 Feb. Tickets are available now priced at £12 – £60. To book, call the ticket office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.

Images: Mats Bäcker