Dear Troubleyn/Jan Fabre,
it was in Greece, nine and a half years ago, that I watched your work for the first time. Jan Fabre was at the sound control, with his team; he has almost always been at the sound control in performances that I have watched since then. It was because of power that I have been travelling to European cities to experience your creations. I do not mean the intensity and the passion on your stage. Energy can go wasted, nothing more than heat and sweat, if it is not transformed and taken up by performers and audience, if it does not become fecund in the form of the Power of Theatrical Madness. This was the first piece of yours that I have ever watched, the onstage embodiment of the memory of theatre. I was adding titles to the lists of performances heard in the piece, titles of performances that had offered me their power through the years. Your works have become a great source of empowerment for me. And when in Berlin, I watched the premiere of Mount Olympus on the day of the collapse of Greek economy, I “took the power back” as your performers whispered at the end of the 24-hour performance. I changed country, language and profession and since then, I have been exploring the empowerment that I have been offered by theatre. Your work has been at the core of this research and my writing.
On a certain morning, before finishing my preparation for a conference, where I would present a paper on Jan Fabre’s solo performance An Attempt not to break the Record of Eddy Merckx, I read the news on the web: Open Letter: #MeToo and Troubleyn/Jan Fabre. Jan Fabre and you were accused of abuse of power. The MeToo movement was the accuser; not just the movement, though, the MeToo hashtag as well. It is about the MeToo hashtag that I am writing to you today.
#MeToo has been vital for the MeToo movement, whose launch and spread was made possible via social media, especially via twitter. A twitter hashtag allows cross-reference; it is a label signalling that a tweet belongs to a certain category of interest. Twitter users read the tweet, retweet it and include the hashtag that makes it visible, so that their followers may re-retweet it. And the followers of their followers may re-re-re…produce identical copies of the original tweet. I used to produce identical copies, once. When I watched the Power of Theatrical Madness, I was a Molecular Biologist. When I needed to produce huge quantities of a gene for an experiment, I used to insert it in a DNA molecule that can be taken up easily by bacteria, just like twitter users insert a hashtag in a tweet. I prepared bacteria for a process called “transformation”, namely to welcome the DNA molecule carrying my gene, just like public opinion had been prepared to welcome the accusation against you, since Jan Fabre had been described for years as a controversial provocateur who pushes boundaries on stage. As bacteria multiplied, they produced identical copies of my gene in immense quantities, just like the retweets on the twitter platform. This technology is called gene cloning; the repetitive temporality of the hashtag is that of cloning.
You are not a hashtag. Your work is based on repetition, but the temporality of your repetition is not that of cloning, you do not produce huge amounts of identical copies. As Jan Fabre writes in his diaries, theatre repeats itself differently in every performance; “repetitie,” the word for “rehearsal” in your language, means “repetition”. The process of repetition “makes us think that we reinvent everything”, he adds, as “in variation lies the nuance of the heart” that leads the company to “complete engagement”. Rehearsals and performances happen through a process of repetition that gives birth to variation and diversity. Performers are not transformed like bacteria whose cell walls are weakened in order to take up the DNA molecule that carries my gene. They are transformed thanks to empowerment by a “state of constant doubt” that Jan Fabre induces as he “starts all over again and again” during his creative process. As Luk van den Dries writes in Corpus Jan Fabre, the creative process does not stop when the premiere takes place, but performances give birth to new processes that may repeat the work differently. Your theatre becomes an open site thanks to repeating differently; the temporality of cloning shuts the hashtag in. The title of the open letter juxtaposes two philosophical attitudes to repetition.
The technology of cloning is a technology of life; among others, it allows the production of synthetic insulin that saves the lives of people with diabetes. MeToo is a movement of life; it demands the end of gender oppression driven by the current dynamics of power distribution. #MeToo spreads this message, however the temporality of the hashtag affects the message itself. Extremely fast, bacteria multiply themselves and fill up the space where they are cultured. My gene and the hashtag fill up the space in the culture dishes and the virtual space of the social media platform. The power of the hashtag is established by its ability to occupy the space. Furthermore, in the culture dishes, antibiotics only allow the growth of those bacteria that carry my gene, just as the hashtag makes visible only the tweets that carry it. The growth of all other bacteria is cancelled. The message that you are fake and your art must be cancelled, spread extremely fast. The spread of messages about your decades-long story was cancelled, since they did not carry the hashtag. The message filled up the public space of social media, which is a space for open discussion. Or at least it should be. The fact that only the growth of bacteria that carry my gene was allowed, prevented the contamination of my gene with others. However, the space of open discussion must be contaminated with other opinions. The elimination of any messages without the hashtag does not allow the message that accused you to interact with any other opinions. The hashtag allows the spread of the message but deprives it from the potential to transform itself through interaction in the public space. The message remains unchanged, it does not doubt like Jan Fabre and his performers. Thanks to the hashtag, it remains safe from interaction with cancelled messages, faithful to its own correctness, trapped in a sterile repetition of sameness.
Not only messages challenging the accusations against you have been cancelled; your performances have been cancelled as well. Not all of them, though. You continue to work and bring new creations on stage, but it has become increasingly difficult to find out where you present them. Most often than not, Jan Fabre is not at the sound control anymore. I had planned a journey to Charleroi to watch your most recent creation, The Fluid Force of Love; it was cancelled. However, I had already watched it when it was streamed live earlier last year, as a result of pandemic restrictions.
You are not a hashtag. Once more, in this creation, your temporality of repetition gives birth to an openness towards interaction. Τhe stage is transformed into a school class with twelve desks. Nine female and male performers in suits sit at them. They are “the teachers and students of gender studies”. They do not take anything for granted, they question all previously acquired knowledge, as they start with a new alphabet that contains LGBTQIA+. This is the beginning of an exploration of gender identities through a dynamic network which includes movement ranging from slow motion to vivid dance, light ranging from shadows to brightness, three languages in which the text is spoken, performance of the costume as items of the basic suit are worn in unconventional ways, behaviours ranging from discipline to anarchy and from tenderness to anger. The school class is in constant transformation, as this dynamic network allows performers to switch from “I” to “we”. Every gender identity comes out of a different “closet”, as they say, and is ready to challenge itself and others, as it is performed in the group. “We can perform what we like”, we are “players”; every performer approaches each identity by repeating differently words and movement. Gender identities are in a constant process of transformation as they are performed by different performers and as they give birth to one another. No performer is restricted to one gender identity; no gender identity is restricted to itself but is challenged by transformation into an entirely different one, such as from asexual to pansexual.
Performers do not dig trenches around them to protect their own identities from contamination. They move towards other identities, instead, and attempt cross-fertilization. The overcoming of boundaries between performers and identities does not lead to homogeneity, but initiates a group process of understanding, an attempt to make sense of how a gender identity can be developed. The power of every gender identity results from its fecundity, its ability to interact with others and reinvent itself through transformation, and not from the occupation of as much space as possible by multiple identical copies of a prescribed version of it. Interaction and birth of identities include risks. Performers are aware of them: the finger that they raise in the school class in order to speak, becomes occasionally a gun pointed against their heads or directed into their mouths. No identity is cancelled. Not even disturbing sexual preferences, not even gender identities who feel powerful because “the media and establishment are on their side” and are confident to “dictate the gender terms”. Performers embody gender freedom, gender madness, gender quake, but also gender business, gender racism; they celebrate diversity and criticize political correctness and exploitation of gender identity. As the motto of the ReFrame platform reminds us, “art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed”. Nothing is comfortable, as transformation challenges certainties. Investment on interaction, though, pays back, since it makes your theatre an open site. The denial of interaction shuts the hashtag in. The title of the open letter juxtaposes two philosophical attitudes to interaction.
I began reading the work of Connie Palmen thanks to a reference I once noticed on your social media. In her essay The Repulsive Fate of the Ancient Philosopher Socrates, she states that “the moment you speak about someone else and you use their name, you play your part in shaping this person’s fate”. Socrates, who was living and teaching openly, paid the prize of his fame, since he became a character in other people’s stories about him. Rumours and anecdotes were spreading among Athenians and through constant repetition they prepared them to accept that Socrates was an enemy of the City. Socrates had to be eliminated; only his death could cancel his philosophical teaching. Socrates had this repulsive fate of the character because he refused to write his story, continues Connie Palmen. “I am what I am”, he insisted, instead of writing down the “I”; because when an author writes “I” he says “I am not what I am”. He died once because he refused to take the risk and use writing as “a way to die a hundred times” and as a result, “to preserve life for an unbelievably long time.”
Jan Fabre is such an author, a writer as well as a creator of visual and theatre stories. His narrative is always a story of transformation derived from his philosophical attitude to repetition and interaction. “How many Jan Fabres exist?”, he wonders in his diaries. In his self-portraits he hybridizes his own face with features of other people and animals. The “I” in his writings refers to numerous personae, and of course to the dung beetle, the insect that he identifies with. His narrative of transformation is a story of metamorphosis, a life cycle like that of insects, a narrative repeated and developed by his performers on stage. As it happens with the life cycle of insects, performers in the Fluid Force of Love do not move towards a final identity. Every stage of the life cycle of this group performance, every gender identity, has distinct roles and features, and is neither superior nor inferior to other stages. As the “players” perform the narrative of metamorphosis, they demonstrate how gender equality can be possible; not an equality of sameness, but a value explored and not already attributed to gender identities through prejudice. And most important of all, the process of metamorphosis feeds back to their own gender identities.
The temporality of the sterile, non-interacting clones, does not allow your narrative of metamorphosis to be communicated. It is not just a performance that is cancelled; Jan Fabre’s authorship is cancelled. Deprived from his own story, he, as well as his theatre company, have become characters in stories spread through the hashtag. As a result of the hashtag’s attitude to repetition and interaction, the narrative that it spreads is a story that refuses to be transformed through a discursive process. The narrative of the open letter, a narrative of victims and predators, is still spreading unchanged: Jan Fabre is supposed to be a perverse genius, a guru narcissist. His long-time collaborators are supposed to be admirers of a fake genius, they lack judgement and cover up his deeds to gain his favour. His victims are supposed to be weak, without agency, not having dared to say “no” because of fear of losing their jobs; some of them have been empowered by the MeToo movement and have signed the open letter. The audience was supposedly guided by influential writers who support your work out of personal interest and should now stop watching your work. “I live in a society that is battle-ready twenty-four hours a day, in which the conflict is not celebrated anymore. There is no respect for the enemy anymore”, writes Jan Fabre in a poem in his book Remnants. And where there is no exploration and understanding, where there is no respect, there is only space for clichés that distort and amplify what has been heard from rumours. The unchanged narrative of the open letter is threatening to shape your fate. Your complex personalities have been reduced to caricatures; they are in the process of being cancelled. The hashtag casts narratives from a single cliché, it shuts the narrative in the repetition of its own story– in printing, a cliché is a stereotype block. You are not a hashtag; your narrative is born through metamorphosis, it never arrives, it remains open. The title of the open letter juxtaposes two narratives: one able to give birth to new stories and one able to cancel all stories.
What an irony! The movement that fights the dominant narrative of gender oppression uses a hashtag that ends up imposing a new dominant narrative; it replaces gender oppression with cancel culture. I have often read on social media “weg met Jan Fabre” – “let’s get rid of Jan Fabre”. It is not only Jan Fabre who is being cancelled. It is you, his theatre company, theatre professionals that have been collaborating with you, the audience that watches your work, those discussing your work in the public space. A theatre community is being cancelled. When I used to clone genes, the dishes where bacteria were growing looked like a fabric with holes. The holes were the spaces occupied by bacterial colonies that did not carry my gene and were eliminated by the use of antibiotics. Cancel culture has transformed public life into a fabric with holes; it gets rid of selected communities by attributing to them cliché identities that they cannot contest because their narratives are being silenced. And what if this drilled fabric is a necessary step towards a genuinely coherent public life? What if you are the old world that must be eliminated so that the new may come? When the director of Charleroi Danse announced the cancellation of the Fluid Force of Love, she regretted that she had to make this decision as a result of threats and pressure on social media. She regretted that an opportunity was missed to open a discussion about the current situation in the dance sector, by taking the cues from this performance. The new cannot be imposed. The new cannot be cloned. The new must be born. But birth requires interaction, cross-fertilization, openness. Otherwise, the holes will be filled with clones of the hashtag, the same as bacteria carrying my gene eventually occupied the whole space of the culture dishes. And the new dominant narrative will behave like former revolutionaries who ended up establishing authoritative regimes that oppressed the people they had fought to save from oppression with their revolution. What could beat the dominant narrative of a hashtag? A more powerful hashtag, perhaps.
You are not a hashtag. The narrative that you propose does not have the ambition to become dominant because it is driven by the power of the doubt. “What we think to know and not to know changes every day in every show”, admit the performers of the Fluid Force of Love, since “the player is in a state of constant creative change”. Doubt empowers them since what they have to offer to their audience is “the fluid voluptuousness of their thinking”. In her essay Performative Acts and Gender Constitution, Judith Butler argues that the embodied subject does not perform its gender as “a merely individual choice” but as “a public action” thanks to “a constituted social temporality”. On your stage, gender identity is not performed by an individual in public, but by individual members of a group. Not only gender identities are in -the-becoming, as Judith Butler claims, but mainly the relationships among gender identities are in-the-becoming. The performance of gender does not only celebrate diversity, but is proposed as a way of developing relationships. Your work on stage does not only demonstrate the way gender narratives are generated but it shows that narratives of gender empowered by doubt can become a prototype of how narratives may overcome their own boundaries, open up and intertwine with other narratives. What was cancelled in Charleroi is not just a performance, but a narrative of fluid movement. This is the way that your work pushes boundaries. Like “a work of art that cannot be closed in a box”, an individual identity cannot be closed in itself. Fluidity may involve enormous risk, however, “it is a breathtaking beauty to be able to be everything, or, on the contrary, nothing at all”, performers declare. If movement stops, a stable, rigid identity is established and the performance of gender is cancelled. “Your identity is your prison”, wrote Etel Adnan some years ago for the Handwriting Project, a project on Instagram by Hans Ulrich Obrist. The hash (#) puts the movement behind bars. When MeToo acquires the temporality of the hashtag, the “too” becomes an endless series of identical clones. The prize for becoming a dominant narrative is the cancellation of movement; the metonymic relationship between MeToo and hashtag. The title of the open letter juxtaposes two cancelled movements: one cancelled by shutting itself in prison of isolation and an open movement cancelled by the imprisoned one. It seems that no one is saved from cancel culture. “How did we end up living in today’s intolerant culture?”, I read in the mission statement of the ReFrame platform. When we stopped giving birth like humans and we started making clones like hashtags, I think.
Lights are off. Cancelled communities are made invisible. Cancel culture has brought the darkest night; a night of silence, exclusion, fear. “Only a night of love, of this physical passion… is the knight, the night to the lives of fear we know”, writes Kathy Acker about the Power of Theatrical Madness. Jan Fabre is the Knight of the Night – I visited this exhibition in London, in 2015. The Knight who initiates the metamorphosis of the darkest night into a night of love. The narrative must be of love, because only those who love can break the prison of self-identity and stand out of their own selves. Kathy Acker insists that the knight can make the transition from fear to ecstasy. The Knight trains his performers how to make ecstasy happen on stage, how to perform the literal meaning of this word, and stand out of their own selves, and offer themselves to spectators who consequently also stand out of life prescribed by others. The Knight makes ecstasy happen in his cancelled community, he ReFrames the narrative imposed on them, as the dark hole of the cancelled fabric of society becomes a theatre stage, where the narrative of the fluid movement is born; the narrative that can heal the wounded fabric because it reaches other narratives, especially those silenced in holes, like his. What could beat the dominant narrative of a hashtag? A narrative of ecstasy, that moves out of the frame of the dominant narrative, it seems.
Out of darkness, students at desks raise a finger to speak; a scene from Tadeusz Kantor’s The Dead Class, which is repeated differently on your stage. The Fluid Force of Love begins by standing out of its own self and performs the memory of theatre, by repeating differently what the Power of Theatrical Madness did in 1984. Like love, memory is in flux, its anarchy makes people uncomfortable. Its anarchy is repetition resulting from metamorphosis; no one can be certain about the next form that will emerge. In 1984 Jan Fabre was considered a part of the “Flemish Wave” of choreography, a movement that revolutionized the world of dance. The open letter accuses him and you of belonging to a past that must be cancelled, an old movement that must be replaced. Early in the piece, “the Old Movement and University are open for applications for gender studies”. “It takes a whole life to become a young artist”, says Jan Fabre. Near the end of the Fluid Force of Love, as performers state that “the theatre of the future is now”, they perform a variation of the exercise of the old man who shakes, one of the core exercises in Jan Fabre’s guidelines for performers. The old man can announce the future because he has become a young artist, through repeated cycles of metamorphosis that lead to new births; the “Old Movement”, is a movement in flux thanks to the reworking of memory, it is “free from all ideologies”; it can give birth to new narratives.
Picture it if you can: a catch-up video call of two friends who have not met since the pandemic. Conversation has become heavy and the friend brings her mobile phone and shows me the newborn baby of her brother sleeping. He is near and he comes to the call; the frame of the mobile phone reframes the frame of the video call, the frame of the heavy conversation. The newborn narrative of the fluidity of movement ReFrames the dominant narrative imposed on you. It is a baby born out of the night of love, a baby dreaming through the darkest night. And as soon as he opens his eyes, his dreams feed the new day, as it happens in Jan Fabre’s poems Remnants. Emerging from the darkest night, the newborn narrative of the “Old Movement” cancels the hash (#). Lights are on, Jan Fabre and his team are at the sound control. “Resurrection, my son, life turns around this word”. Jan Fabre writes in his diaries that those were his mother’s words when years ago he was blamed and shamed for alleged plagiarism. Resurrection is a new birth of the “Old Movement” has never ceased reinventing itself through reaching others.
Looking forward to the new birth, as I am writing this letter to you; it is a letter of love, since only a letter of love can be an open letter.
Sylvia Solakidi is a UK-based scholar who writes about theatre and experiences of time. She has published essays on theatre and visual art works of Jan Fabre. As it is the case with all her writings, this text does not reflect opinions either of the academic institution she is affiliated with or her employer.