Norway’s Alan Lucien Øyen, 44, is a polymath whose artistic credits span dance, theatre and opera. Here are just some of the companies and people he has recently worked with: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Netherlands Dance Theatre, Paris Opera and Paris Opera Ballet, and legendary actress Liv Ullmann. It doesn’t get much starrier than that.
Øyen keeps busy buzzing around Europe and beyond as a choreographer, stage director for theatre and opera, and playwright. Occasionally, when he wants to do something for himself, he returns to Bergen, and resurrects his company, Winter Guests, by assembling specially chosen dancers and/or actors from across Europe to create a new piece that crosses the lines between the art forms.
Currently, Øyen is in Canada with Winter Guests to present his latest work, Story, story, die, at Harbourfront’s Fleck Dance Theatre tonight (June 28) and tomorrow (June 29) and, by the sound of it, it is not to be missed.
Our interview took place over Zoom when Øyen was in Vancouver on the first leg of his Canadian tour.
I find your given names interesting.
My mother loved things British, and found the name Alan in the Great British Book of Christian Names. My father loved the French, so that’s where Lucien came from.
You literally grew up in the theatre.
It’s true. My father was a dresser, so I was in the theatre all the time. My mother was a pharmacist, but loved singing. She was in choirs.
You first wanted to be a film director, and yet you trained as a dancer.
When I watched contemporary dance, I’d feel the urge to physically move. It was a visceral reaction. I was taken up by the performance. That’s why I wanted to be a contemporary dancer, even though I was starting to train late. I got into the State School for Dance when I was 16, but soon I was telling myself, I can’t do this, and I asked to change to the theatre department, but they wouldn’t let me, so I was stuck in dance. It turned out to be a good thing. I still love film, though. I was obsessed by Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, and people talking about themselves.
What about your career as a dancer?
When I graduated, I joined Carte Blanche, The Norwegian National Company of Contemporary Dance. Amanda K. Miller came to set a piece, and even though I was just an apprentice, she cast me in the work. Amanda was one of the original dancers with William Forsythe’s legendary Ballett Frankfurt. At the time, she had her own group called Pretty Ugly Dance Company based in Cologne, Germany. She invited me to join them, and I spent a year there in 2005. I learned so much from her — articulation, push, precision, delicacy, flashiness. It was a direct link back to Billy Forsythe.
How did your choreographic career begin?
Even though I was a dance student, I always had talent as a writer, so I did writing for people — like director’s and performance notes, and funding applications. I then realized that I was creating opportunities for others, so maybe I should start rooting for myself, so I wrote grants for me, and when I got them, I had to create work. In a way, I was protected in Norway. I was able to gain experience because I got public funding, and so I could create the work I wanted. After my year with Amanda, I decided to focus on choreography.
At the same time, you were creating a career in theatre.
I started writing plays, and then I began directing at regional theatres, and because I had experience as a stage director, I was asked to direct opera.
You have created works for some of the greatest dance, theatre and opera companies in the world. How did you get known, coming from a small country like Norway?
Do you know what a slug pile is? It’s the pile of videos that festival producers receive, and you hope that one of them will notice your video and ask you to perform. I spent about 11 years being chosen from the slug pile, doing a lot of one-offs at little festivals. It was a slow and steady progression. That’s how I built my career under the radar.
Something must have propelled you into the spotlight.
It was Adolphe Binder who put me on the radar. In 2015, she asked me to come to the Gothenburg Opera Dance Company in Sweden. At the time, it was becoming an important contemporary company in Europe. I was surprised because I was working mostly with actors, but she told me to make her dancers into actors. Other companies started to invite me to set pieces.
From the Canadian premiere at the National Arts Centre:
Winter Guests is such an unusual name for a company. Where did it come from?
I had created a solo for a dancer and we were at a festival in Portugal. Since it was more than just me, I figured it was a company, and we needed a name. I like the word winter because it conveys poetic isolation. The guests came about because we are guests when we tour.
When you are doing work for yourself, you seem to move between hiring dancers and actors.
It depends what I want to talk about in the new work. Sometimes I want to be immersed in abstract movement and be free of literacy, and sometimes the opposite. On the other hand, I always want to stretch myself and develop my artistry, so I try to hire people who have had more experience than me. Critics always have trouble defining me because I do dance pieces at theatre festivals and vice versa. Is he a choreographer? A theatre artist? That’s my mystery.
At the end of the day, however, it’s all theatre, and staging and text are both a very important part of all my work. My pieces are precisely crafted and articulated. I describe my work as dance with the spoken word.
‘Story, story, die’ has an interesting premise. You ask whether we are ever really our authentic selves.
I believe we are driven by applause. We want to be liked, so we create personas that we think will please others. Our public selves are important to us. The piece focuses on how we present ourselves to others. It’s about what drives us. The original title was Please Love Me, so that is a clue to the piece.
How do you develop such an abstract theme for dance?
First of all, I have seven incredible dancers. We started off having conversations and dialogues. I also had them do writing. It was very collaborative. The movements came from the text. Even though it might look like abstract movement to the audience, the dancers know the meaning behind the physicality. It is not really a commentary on social media, though. It’s more intimate and highly articulated than that. It’s about human expression and people’s imperfections. The use of body in the piece is extreme, but there is always a subtext. The movement tends to go faster, until it spins out of control.
Are you one of those creative artists who gear their work to the hour-long festival mode?
Never. In fact, my works are notoriously long. That’s been one of my main criticisms — that I do too much. That’s why I admire Robert Lepage. He was a great influence on me, with his brilliant staging and making a work as long as was necessary. Story, story, die is 90 minutes.
When you’re not setting work all over Europe, are you based in your home town of Bergen?
I split my time between Bergen, where my parents are and Winter Guests is based, and Oslo. I’ve been an associated artist at the Oslo Opera House since 2013.
Your career is certainly an enviable one. I’m dazzled by the companies you have created work for.
I’ve been so lucky. I’ve had supportive parents. I’ve been able to develop my career at my own pace. From an early age, I was able to gain an understanding of art, and what goes into stagecraft, which has given me a tremendous respect for theatre in all its facets.
And here’s a secret. I suffer from the imposter syndrome. I ask myself questions like, do I really belong at the Paris Opera, for example? It’s a real social anxiety, until I start creating, and then I can concentrate on the work.
Harbourfront Centre Torque/Story, story, die choreographed by Alan Lucien Øyen, Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront, is on stage June 28 and 29. Tickets here.
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