Festival Drama Is Ode To Human Resilience In Face Of Human Frailty


The Norwegian international touring company winter guests performing ‘The American Moth’ at the Bergen Festival. (Photo by Annika Ostwald)

BERGEN, Norway — In these betwixt and between intervals of the pandemic, festivals are particularly vulnerable. Planned years in
advance, a festival is a costly and complex enterprise that cannot be mobilized to another location. A festival belongs to its place and its people.

When a festival forges ahead during these times, chances are there is a serious dosage of will, hope, and roll-up-your-sleeves resolve by its team to bring the event to fruition. This year’s Bergen International Festival (May 26-June 9) proved that tenacity brings rewards. Buoyed by a last-minute cash injection from the Norwegian government (the U.S. equivalent of $950,000) this
year’s festival, in a mix of live and online presentations, delivered on almost all its promises.

While artistic director Anders Beyer’s pivoting theme of America was compromised — Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade of History of Popular Music didn’t make it to opening night but is re-scheduled to 2022, for instance — this 2021 edition confirmed the message that in-person festivals remain one of the most vital conduits for shared experience, rejuvenation, and imagination for our societies.

Legendary Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, right, plays an aged woman dealing with dementia. (Photo by Thor Brødreskift)

This year’s Bergen Festival could have satisfied a visitor with a single production: The American Moth by Alan Lucien Øyen and his company, winter guests. The American Moth is virtuosic. As a documentary of our pandemic times, The American Moth brings the cathartic powers that great theater can offer; like a Greek tragedy, it can restore emotional equilibrium.

Øyen is one the most influential innovators of his generation. As the first choreographer to create a new work for Tanztheater Wuppertal since Pina Bausch, the Norwegian brings his multi-faceted talents as writer, choreographer, and cinematic director to produce something that could not have been conceived at any other time than during the pandemic. The social resonance of the work cannot not be overestimated.

In The American Moth, Øyen, together with long-time collaborator Andrew Wale and cast, has written a four-language play (English, Norwegian, Mandarin, and Old Egyptian), dance piece, and musical drama. Danced soliloquies, dance and text duets, musical interludes, and song form a series of vignettes of life experiences. When merged with a cinematic orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat, the totality is seamless.

The elements weave, layer, and harmonize with the polyphonic precision of a Bach fugue. The sum of these multiple parts then creates a palpable energy that holds you in thrall. There is a gathering, organic momentum that brings waves of climaxes. It seems as if you are holding your breath for the entire performance.

The American Moth is both a contemplation on human frailty and an ode to resilience. Its central theme can be encapsulated by its opening lines: “All life is here and none.” The piece investigates many of the thoughts that have no doubt occupied most of us during some stage of the pandemic: the value of our lives, our connections with others, and our confrontation with mortality. The
American Moth
explores these questions through the gaze of vulnerability. There is no set. The performers, all dressed in black street clothes, gather in a circular space that is communal and open. There is nowhere to hide. Yet despite this simple state, we do not yearn for more. The lyricism of the text and the poetry of the choreography carry all the imagery that we need.

Writer, choreographer, and cinematic director Alan Lucien Øyen is the creator of ‘The American Moth.’ (Massimo Leardini)

The American Moth is headed by the indomitable Liv Ullmann playing an aged woman coming to terms with dementia. Her pivoting journey is summed up by her comment, “Am I as old as one of those mountains?” At once with this solitary line, we understand the deep emotional terrain of the life that this woman has covered, and the climb ahead of her. There are physical signs of her illness with periodic tremors of her hands. At times she shuffles. The amplitude of her vocal delivery ranges from quiet, halted whispers to strident rage. Yet throughout, there is always an inner grace. We are with her through every step of her decline. Ullmann’s fellow cast members form an ensemble par excellence. While every contribution is unique, Olivia Ancona’s dance/spoken word performance is an exceptional moment, her choreographic sequences in dialogue with her own spoken thoughts.

The orchestral score by multi-Academy Award winner Desplat contributes as another and equal member of the ensemble. Desplat’s music operates on two planes, as a tapestry that knits the nine confessional stories and as antiphon to each character’s thoughts. His leitmotifs mirror inner emotions. The score works as a series of sinfonia concertantes. The piano leads the ensemble in one scene, the harp in another, and the trombones in another. The textures never overwhelm because Desplat couches his ideas in light orchestrations. The composer brings movement through the interplay of the inner voices. The potency of his score is heightened by the sensitive and adroit direction by Dominique “Solrey” Lemonnier with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

Øyen’s multinational cast and creative team represent the international cooperation that will bring this production to other corners of the globe: the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington D.C.; the National Theatre and Concert Hall, Taipei; the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, Oslo; and the Internationaal Theatre Amsterdam. The pandemic will dictate what is possible
and when.

‘The American Moth’ had its premiere at the 2021 Bergen Festival. (Thor Brødreskift)