In 2004 I started my first dramaturgical collaboration with Jan Fabre. I had been following his work already for years, fascinated as I was by his daring radicality on stage. This fascination was certainly linked to how he was dealing with sexuality, amongst others. Growing up with the French philosopher Michel Foucault he was very aware of the enormous impact of all kinds of disciplination processes that are aimed at bringing down the power of sexuality. Centuries of religious doctrines had an enormous impact on how we ‘normalised’ our sexual behavior to adapt to a certain norm which was acceptable within society.
What for me always was thrilling in Fabre’s work is how he manifested performers to regain their freedom. To bring performers on stage who seem to have no limits, and who seem to escape from all forms of control. Performers who have the power of wild animals. Watching someone who is free is one of the most liberating experiences. And that’s what I so much had been seeking in theatre all over the years: theatre that liberates me, that purges me from my own limits, my own anxieties and nightmares. And I found it with Jan Fabre.
I have a weird theory, that is that the source of great art is sexuality. I witnessed this in all the work of artists I admire: it’s backboned by a sexual drive, the vibration of light that brings things to life. The great thing about Jan Fabre is that he’s not ashamed of this. His work is abundantly taking all its juices from the power of sexuality. I admire this freedom in him, and I think that an overwhelmingly big part of the audiences that are attracted by the work of Troubleyn is fascinated by the liberating force of this work: it’s a challenging work because it challenges ‘normalities’, it dares to look at our paradoxes as a human being, it’s showing men and women (and all in between and beyond) in all their full-out complexities. And luckily there is no ethical commission at work!
During all the hundreds of evenings I spend in the rehearsal room of Troubleyn, I didn’t experience any moment of harassment or humiliation. On the contrary there is always a great deal of care, of support and constructive guidance from the director and his crew. Yes, to work with Jan Fabre is intentionally confronting, it’s bringing you out of your comfort zone, it’s very challenging. Sexuality is part of this process, in the sense that Fabre addresses sometimes sexual topics, because it’s part of life, part of making art. It’s also part of the creative process, to invite performers to explore their hidden zones, their own obscurities. Yes it’s sometimes difficult and turbulent, but I experienced it always within a very respectful creative frame.
Our first collaboration was the opera Tannhäuser in the Royal Opera of Brussels. We approached the opera from the point of view of René Girard’s theory of the scapegoat. The expulsion of a scapegoat functions as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of order. The scapegoat is considered as a monster that transgressed the rules of the society and by its elimination, peace is restored. That’s exactly what happened in 2018 when Fabre was accused in an open letter and ultimately sentenced by court in 2022. The art sector in Belgium was happy and relieved to find a scapegoat and restore its order by sending the scapegoat into the desert.
I personally miss him and his work. And I do hope he will soon come back from the desert.
Luk Van den Dries
Luk Van den Dries is Emeritus Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Antwerp (Belgium). He wrote several books and articles on Jan Fabre and worked as a freelance dramaturg (Tannhäuser, Requiem für eine Metamorphose, Mount Olympus).