An overarching theme of violence: Jan Fabre and abuse

Six years ago, while participating in Jardin d’Europe’s Critical Endeavor at Impulstanz-Vienna  International Dance Festival, I watched Jan Fabre’s Preparatio Mortis. The performance, a solo made by Fabre for Annabelle Chambon, made a lasting impression on me. In fact, of the hundreds of dance works I have seen in the past decade, it is among the ten I think of most often. This is not because it was the most enjoyable or beautiful, not because it raised the most pressing issue or posed astute commentary but rather because of its sheer violence.

As the audience walked into the theater, we were met with an elaborately decorated stage, curtains apart. Thousands of flowers were strewn on the floor and atop a completely covered structure. It was one of the most astonishingly beautiful layouts I have ever seen and left me partially distracted for the first half of the work. By the time I stopped considering how many flowers were actually on the stage, their cost, where they were purchased, who laid them out, in what way, freestyle or preplanned and so on and so forth, I realized that someone was writhing underneath the lilies. As the piece unfolded, the dancer, first clad in lacy black undergarments and later nude, made her way inside the structure, a glass tomb filled with live butterflies. She began an exhausting path inside the cramped space, filling it with steam and crushing the butterflies with her limbs as she went.

Many objected to the treatment of animals in this work, in the needless killing of so many butterflies. But still, the performance went on.

The recent letter put out by twenty former performers of Fabre’s, accusing Fabre of systematic sexual harassment, took me back to that piece. I have never met Fabre but have seen a handful of his pieces. In my opinion, the connective thread between them was violence, whether it was towards a single performer, amongst a group or towards the audience. Violence was not the topic or the point but rather the aroma wafting from the stage into the crowd.

There are, of course, many dance works that deal in violence. Linda Kapetanea and Jozef Frucek’s Collective Loss of Memory is a great example of a piece that shines a light on violence. The difference is that Fabre’s works do not raise the issue, comment on it or criticize it. They indulge in it.

Since I first heard Fabre’s name, he was known to me as a choreographer who pushed his dancers to the edge and beyond. I heard horror stories of dancers being asked to perform all kinds of shocking acts during auditions. Strangely, I think this raised the esteem the community had for Fabre. He was ruthless, extreme, insane even. This kind of lunacy lures dancers rather than deflects them.

It equally lures audiences.

For decades now, cultured throngs have flocked to watch Fabre’s dancers light their farts on fire (literally), slay living things and push themselves into extraordinary states of exhaustion. We love him because he is extreme, because he is willing to show the ugly, the grotesque, because he is willing to go beyond the accepted limits of what is done on stage. We love his manipulations, his construct of warped realities, his disregard for boundaries. But did we not think that this sensibility wasn’t just an act but a personality?

The letter details this exact thing. Violence, manipulation, bullying, disrespect. The exact characteristics that made his work famous, that put him in the top echelon of international choreographers, that opened doors to prestigious cultural institutions and padded his company’s bank account cause shock waves when it comes out that they were also manifested in real life.

As with so many #metoo moments that have transpired, I am not surprised or shocked. Abuse is abuse is abuse and one kind is so easily exchanged for another.

It seems so obvious that what the man put on stage was also present in the studio if not ten, a hundred or a thousand-fold.

I do not propose that each creation is a direct window into the soul of its creator. But when there is a such an overarching theme of violence and abuse, we must stop to ask if the artists’ methods are acceptable and, if not, consider putting our precious funds (as institutions and ticket-buyers) elsewhere.


Ori Lenkinski