In February this year, Winter Guests performed Avenida Corrientes at the Norwegian Opera and Ballet. This production, a seamless tapestry of theatre, dance and video, was first performed three years ago, but felt just as fresh and new as when it was premiered – maybe even fresher now. The dancer Daniel Proietto and actor/ writer Andrew Wale, two of Alan Lucien Øien’s closest collaborators, displayed their tale of an aging German choreographer and his male muse with a combination of tenderness and irony feeling brutally honest, yet life affirming.
After the performance I went to give thanks to the two artists. I found them backstage, behind a large canvas that made up the end wall, the only prop in the performance. There they were, half naked, changing back into their personal clothes. It was a shocking moment, almost as if I’d walked into the continuation of the performance. What I had just seen on stage had been about the dynamic between these two men, Daniel and Andrew. I found myself thinking that if a camera had captured the scene and transferred it to a big screen in the foyer, the audience would just keep watching, as if the play would go on and on, continuing into real life.
This mixture of uncompromising display of private life and unbounded creativity has become the trademark of Winter Guests’ works. And in Coelacanth, they take the whole thing to the next level.
The starting point for tonight’s performance was the desire to revisit the universe of the 2009 production America – Visions of Love, and the crew consists of many of the same people as then. Having followed the company’s work over the last few years, it is easy to understand their desire. The projects often begin with a simple sense of wonderment, in this case about our conceptions of America, and in the first phase they make an effort to leave all preconceived ideas behind. The performance then takes shape through an exploration both inwards and outwards – of the depths of the mind, of the vast horizons of the planet, and in the end, it all comes back to the stage. The search is so open that it is often subject to derailment and distractions – but then, after all, that is just what they’re looking for. I guess it’s a matter of derailment as a dramaturgical and existential principle. This unorthodox methodology leaves the core of the play continuously changing. Hence, what could be more natural this time around than to try out new roads in the very same landscape, getting to know characters that previously were only figurines in the periphery and let ourselves be enchanted by ever new derailments?
In this production, the composer was the first to deliver the material. And at the same time, Ingrid Lorentzen, head of the Norwegian National Ballet, wanted to engage Alan in a long term collaboration, and the first thing on her wish list was a production based on the great myth of Orpheus and Euridice. The playwright duo Alan and Andrew found themselves drawn in two directions before they had even started!
With a timid hope the work begun, and the ensemble was somewhat panicked by the limited time frame, the low budget and their high ambitions. >The only comfort was found in what I’d describe as the ensemble’s artistic tenet – the faith that in every phenomena, however strange, unforeseen or bashful, a reflection of the human spirit can be found. With this view point as their leading star, they’ve been inventing the path as they’ve walked, trying things out as they went along. They’ve searched for answers to what the ancient fish species coelacanth could teach them about patterns of occurences, and to why Euridice enters their lives just now. They ask who Lisa Reynolds, the woman they meet at an Italian restaurant in New York, really is, and what actually happened to that father of hers and his untold story.
As a result, we, the audience, become more aware of the process, the journey, the odyssey – and we realize that the journey is the main point. In fact, for Winter Guests, inventing the story is the only important thing. It was through the process that Daniel and Andrew became the protagonists in Avenida Corrientes, and in fact, more than anything else, Coelacanth is about the performers themselves and the multiple realities they find themselves in. Of course, Alan invites the real Lisa Reynolds to the premiere, as if to underline that what happens on stage is a play with realities, and that to keep playing is the only thing that matters.
This is doubly ironic. Certainly, the play may be serious, but it leaves no doubt around the fact that this is entertainment. And as co-inventors of the story, the audience is half the team.
I’m not sure Alan knows what he’s talking about, when he states that what he really wants to do is to make films (although he has shown himself to be a promising film director in the video sequences created for Winter Guests’ productions). On the contrary, I think he would feel constrained. A movie is a finished product – it’s done. Alan, on the other hand, never get’s done, and that’s the whole point of his work. In the end, that is exactly what makes his productions so engaging for all of us. It’s about life on stage. And life on stage is something that forever will require a live, co-inventing audience as its opponent. This is why Winter Guests’ productions feel dangerous, yet daringly life affirming. And in Coelacanth more than ever.
Text: Tom Remlov