ARTIST WORDS: An Exclusive Interview with Alan Lucien Øyen of winter guests (January 2017)
Mitchell Center: How did you come up with the title Simulacrum, and do you remember where you were?
Alan Lucien Øyen: I know I first came across the concept from reading Jean Baudrillard’s essay, Simulacrum and Simulacra. I have been preoccupied with his writing for years, but I don’t remember how or when I first made the connection to our work. I do, however, remember one of the very first times writing about this, sitting at a tiny desk in a small Tokyo hotel room in February 2014, feverishly writing about all the newly discovered connections. Baudrillard explains simulacrum as “copies that depict the things that either had no reality to begin with, or that no longer have an original.”
To me this was mind-blowing—the very idea that a representation could be equally truthful, or perhaps even more so, than the original that it depicts. This also felt like “dangerous thinking” when faced with the tradition and rules of the insular world of kabuki. Yes, Daniel had been invited to study this art form with one of the most prominent teaching families in Japan—it is normally taught only through bloodlines—but, was his very Westernness in the way of his truthfulness? And equally with Shōji Kojima, something as unlikely as a Japanese flamenco artist. Today he is decorated with a medal of Honor from the King of Spain, but his passion for flamenco was not always recognized, and certainly not in Andalusia in 1964.
I further went on to discover that the role of the onnagata, the female roles, which is still in kabuki, like the traditional Shakespeare, performed only by men, is considered to be a role model for traditional Japanese women today. Women watching men play women, to be more attractive to men. I remember being tremendously excited about these connections. I still am. Also because of the negative connotations to the word simulacrum—as something lesser. A fake. When it ought to represent a distorted truth that has influenced authenticity. Is it possible to truthfully represent something that you’re not? Can a western kabuki dancer, or a Japanese flamenco artist, communicate just as much, or perhaps even more, about these art forms, then the “originals” they are trying to emulate?
Mitchell Center: How did the idea to bring Daniel Proietto and Shōji Kōjima together come about?
Alan Lucien Øyen: It started with Daniel who, through his own passion had managed to be invited to learn Japanese dance with the Fujima family. While in Tokyo we were introduced to Shōji-san through our Japanese partner in the project. It is very hard not to fall in love with Shōji-san as a person and artist, so there was an immediate interest. But we quickly identified his similarities and opposites to Daniel: the “illegality” of his artistic project in the 1960s—abandoning his home country to take on a new traditions, flamenco, that was equally insular as kabuki is considered today. Daniel has been studying the onnagata, the female kabuki, and when Shōji-san dances his flamenco, he wears a skirt and has his hair long.
The chemistry between the two was also striking—we couldn’t ignore it. Also the two of them as people alone presented us with the possibility to tell many stories: about age, gender, cultural migration. Besides all of this, they are both amazing dancers and performers. Both award-winning and highly recognized as artists who have spent their careers pushing boundaries and making choices out of the ordinary. Simulacrum is no exception.
Mitchell Center: What was the process in creating Simulacrum? Can you discuss the use of reality to create fictional narratives?
Alan Lucien Øyen: We have a tradition at winter guests to build our fiction from personal stories or from our surrounding reality. The project started with Daniel and his desire to understand and decipher the codified world of kabuki. That had to be a part of it. Then once we got to know of Shōji-san’s story, we quickly decided that we wanted to use his past as part of the narrative for Simulacrum. It seemed to be immediately relevant: Cultural migration, an actual journey, in life and art—Shōji went on an arduous three-week travel in 1964 from Japan to Spain via boat and through Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Abandonment—and in Shōji-san’s case, denouncing—family for art.
Then there’s the story of his mother. As Shōji was given away at birth, to his uncle who was unable to conceive children of his own, this was the cause for tremendous grief for his mother and his lifelong search for his true identity.
The process, which happened in several stages over two years, began with interviews and simple workshops in Normandy, France. We eventually travelled to Japan, both to work with the Fujima family, who eventually created a traditional kabuki piece “Natsue” to accompany our performance, but also to go back to Shōji-san’s roots. The travel to his his childhood’s town left a mark on all of us who traveled there.
Mitchell Center: What does the artistic crossing of cultural barriers reveal?
Alan Lucien Øyen: Well firstly, I think it revealed—when we looked carefully and beyond the obvious a aesthetic differences of the two art forms, kabuki and flamenco—was how similar they are in their form: The string instrument used in kabuki, the shamisen, vs. the flamenco guitar. Dance to a sung story, often passionately, both dealing with spirituality and both minimal in their expression.
One of the initially eye-opening incidents I remember from the process with Simulacrum was when Daniel tried to teach Shōji-san basic steps of nihon buyo [Japanese classical dance]. The expression is very minimal and to us outsiders they seem so intrinsically traditionally Japanese and therefore culturally Japanese. I then realized that we expected Shōji to have this in his body due to his cultural background—the positioning of his feet, the way of shifting the weight, which of course he does not—nihon buyo is a technically challenging dance not about who you are, but about what you do.
With regards to crossing the cultural barriers I’m amazed with how much you get, not how much you lose. I think this is particularly true with regards to such extraordinary artists such as Shōji-san and Daniel, who very much make the art they perform their own. Diligent, relentless perfectionists who will stop at nothing. The dance they produce is perhaps in the end more about their artistic identities rather than their cultural identities.
Mitchell Center: How does contemporary dance mix into this?
Alan Lucien Øyen: In the course of Simulacrum, we play with both expressions through the freedom of contemporary dance. All the rules can be abandoned and you’re both able and allowed to borrow from flamenco and kabuki. This was a very playful and rewarding part of the process. In the end Shōji-san performs his Soléa, perhaps the one of the flamenco dances closest to the core of its tradition, and in Sōke Kanjuro Fujima’s piece Natsue, the accompanying Kabuki solo, Daniel puts all his skills towards a perfect Simulacrum of kabuki and nihon buyo.
Mitchell Center: What have you worked most on while fine-tuning this show?
Alan Lucien Øyen: It is very much a collective work. But due to cultural barriers—language, culture, tradition, age—it was a complex process moving slowly and steadily forward over two years. In the end we spent five weeks everyone together, developing texts and dance further and assembling the work with set, music, lights, and movements at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. So it was very much a work in many steps. Most of the effort went into the study with Daniel and Shōji in rehearsals together, identifying and developing a common language for all of us.