Norwegian Alan Lucien Oyen was understandably nervous about devising a new piece with the late, iconic choreographer’s dance company. Nick Awde learns how the creative process turned out to be far more comfortable than expected
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch is back with its first new full-length works since its creator died in 2009 – a huge psychological step for a troupe shaped by the genre-defining choreographer that is fiercely protective of its collective work.
“What’s most important for the company is the legacy,” says director and choreographer Alan Lucien Oyen, “taking care of Pina’s works and then finding the best way to look forward. I think that’s certainly Pina – all of us looking forward, trying new things.”
Norwegian Oyen, along with Greek Dimitris Papaioannou – also a director and choreographer – was invited to take on the daunting prospect of stepping into Bausch’s shoes and creating new works. The results, New Work I: Since She (Papaioannou) and New Work II: Bon Voyage, Bob (Oyen), have come to Sadler’s Wells after premiering in Wuppertal – and audiences can now make up their own minds in the ongoing debate as to whether Tanztheater Wuppertal without Bausch is no longer Tanztheater Wuppertal.
“It was a good fit for Adolphe [Binder, former Tanztheater Wuppertal artistic director] to bring me in,” says Oyen.“I’m preoccupied with process – my work’s always about getting close to the performer and finding where they click. So, a lot of this project was a dialogue with the company to find out who they are now. It’s the same people we’ve seen on the stage – some of them since the 1970s, but who are they now?
“I didn’t come in with a topic or dogma. I just sat them all down in a circle at the Lichtburg [rehearsal space] and said: ‘We need to get to know each other.’ I could see some of them were nervous about creating – they hadn’t done that for a long time, let alone with somebody else. So it was all about getting to know each other and we started talking a year before we started rehearsing.”
Although they went into production at the same time, there was little scope for rivalry between the two shows even when it came to casting. “We could have fought over the people like you always do when you split a company – tug of war, as I call it – but it was quite easy with Dimitris’, because he was so specific about what he needed. He wanted to work with young, strong men and I was very keen on working with the older performers.”
“Adolphe gave us complete freedom and we had very little to do with each other’s processes. We’d see each other at the coffee bar in the morning, and it would be: ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ ‘Oh, I’m terrified and nervous.’ And as Dimitris was opening first, he had a bit less time than me.”
The tension can’t have been helped by the unexpected sacking of Binder after little more than a year in the job – a fact Binder said she only found out through press reports. Her successor Bettina Wagner-Bergelt is the theatre’s fifth artistic head since 2009.
It’s revealing to see how that internal situation came to be reflected in Bon Voyage, Bob. “When we started working and creating, topics came up,” recalls Oyen. “A lot was about dealing with letting go, moving on, changing, or any type of death. So that became a topic. It kind of just happened – it wasn’t something that I steered or curated.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I’m almost embarrassed to say that I’ve never really had to take any other work than in the theatre. With the exception of one Sunday afternoon in 1999, selling snow cones ($10 batches of grated ice) for Disney’s World on Ice in Oslo.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Dancer in the national contemporary dance company.
What’s your next job?
Apart from creating a new work with my own company Winter Guests, directing an opera for Opera Flanders.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Things will take time and that’s okay. Just do your thing.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My father (who was a dresser in the theatre), working with actors, which has taught me humility and to respect the stage and the artists that dedicate their lives to it. Robert Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon has also had a long-lasting impact.
If you hadn’t been a choreographer, what would you have been?
Porter in a large state-hospital, wheeling the patients and the dead between wards.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
All of them. I’m an extremely superstitious person.
His next step was to create an online ‘mind map’ with rehearsal videos to build an archive around the topic, not unlike the way Bausch worked. “Of course, I knew a little about how Pina worked, but I honestly had no idea how tremendously influenced I have been by her work. Her impact on how we devise theatre is perhaps even greater today than her impact on dance. So it was great to kind of feel in your body like, ‘Oh, this feels so familiar!’
“I never met Pina and didn’t know her work so well, but the more I got to know through the performers, the more I learnt. So the whole thing felt very comfortable. I have always said that performing art is about communication, and if the piece doesn’t communicate, it’s not art to me. But then you have to listen.”
Oyen soon amassed a wealth of material as part of his usual method of making work, taking stories and elements from the performers and then building that into one story. He says he wanted all of his performers to have a say in what was becoming “this big tapestry about loss and moving on”.
Though radically different, Papaioannou’s piece has similar resonances. “There are things that are the same,” admits Oyen. “It proves we were both listening to the performers, but it was two different processes with different people. I was surprised, though, that we’ve both made a family portrait.”
At more than three hours, Bon Voyage is a piece whose length may surprise audiences turning up to experience a pure dance piece. As a theatre director as well as choreographer, however, Oyen is no stranger to long pieces across both genres. The Hamlet Complex – produced by Norwegian National Ballet, where he is in-house choreographer – is a three-act dance piece with text that clocks in at three and a half hours.
He’s busy on his own, as well as with his company Winter Guests, on projects for 2019 and preparatory work for 2020, taking in cultural centres across the globe such as Taipei, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Turin. It’s a life that comes naturally to him. The son of a dresser in Bergen, he “grew up in a small theatre – Den Nationale Scene – established by Ibsen himself”, where he watched theatre religiously from the age of seven.
“My dance training is my formal training, but what I learned and saw as a child is really my education. I’m glad I got to experience that, because everybody brings the camera home today, don’t they? Like, ‘at home with so-and-so’. Actors and actresses aren’t mysterious, artists aren’t these magical people any more, so they are less respected because we know that they are just like us. So normalised.
“Of course, theatre should also be a proper workspace. That’s how it should be. But some of the mystery and feeling of theatre as a sacred space is a bit gone.”
As for Tanztheater Wuppertal’s next step, Oyen confesses he has no knowledge. He says: “I think creating more works is what they would like to do and I think that was part of the initiative when they went out to search for Adolphe. It was part of her brief and I don’t think they have changed that with the new director.
“It was very successful. I’m speaking now of the experience within the company. And of course I can only speak for myself because I wasn’t there in Dimitris’ rehearsals, but they were not just a museum. That doesn’t mean any of them are unhappy doing Pina’s work, but just to feel that they can still do it even without Pina, you know?”
Born: 1978, Bergen, Norway
Training: Studied with ballet master Peter Tornev for four years before moving to the State School of Art in Oslo (graduated 2001)
Career: Founder of Winter Guests (2006); In-house choreographer at Norwegian National Ballet (2013-present)
• The Hamlet Complex, Norwegian National Ballet (2018)
• Coelacanth, Norwegian Opera (2013)
• Kodak, Goteborgs Operans Danskompani (2016)
• Excerpts of Citation without Context (2004)
• Hedda award for best original play for Coelacanth (2014)
• Kedja Dansolution prize for And Carolyn (2008)
New Piece II: Bon Voyage, Bob by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch runs at Sadler’s Wells, London until February 25