Absolutely Fabuleus: the Leuven theatre company that gives kids a chance


Dance and theatre company Fabuleus allows young people to throw themselves into the art and opens their eyes to the opportunities it offers

A hard act to follow

About 10 years ago, I went to an audition organised by the Leuven dance and theatre company Fabuleus. My memory of the exercises and improvisations is patchy and warped. But I still remember the rush of that day.

The young choreographer who seemed to know exactly where he was going, the freakishly talented 20 other participants, the promise of something new that physically clung to the air – I could almost feel my horizon stretching, like I had just peaked a mountain I didn’t know I was on.

Dirk De Lathauwer says his aim and that of the other Fabuleus founders was always to do exactly that – open the eyes of young people to the opportunity to explore their passion for dance and theatre.

“This is about allowing people who have a particular desire to completely commit to something, to fully grow in something, regardless of whether they will eventually go into it professionally,” he says. 

Supporting talent

The Fabuleus artistic director makes the analogy of sport to explain the production company’s mission and purpose. “Everybody thinks it’s natural that 14- and 15-year-old athletes who are talented and want to dedicate themselves receive professional support,” he says, pointing to the careers of footballer Romelu Lukaku, tennis player Justine Henin and track and field star Nafi Thiam.

“When they were 15, they received incredible amounts of support, incredible opportunities for growth; they were allowed to play in tournaments around the world,” he says.  

We don’t have contracts with these young people, so we depend on their loyalty and commitment, and that requires us to create a certain atmosphere

- Dirk De Lathauwer

With young people who show potential in theatre or dance, it’s a whole different story. “When people are artistically talented, that often has to stay in the hobby realm for a very long time. We feel these things are the same – with the only difference that you can get rich from sports.”

Fabuleus was founded by a handful people as a subproject of the Leuven Artforum youth organisation in 1996. Since then, it has developed into an independent non-profit with its own quarters at the Opek art centre.

The company tours Belgium and Europe and has created 87 shows in the past 20 years, many of which were critically acclaimed by the local press. Fabuleus productions and the organisation itself have won several awards, most notably the Flemish Culture Prize for stage arts in 2008.

The list of alumni is long, and several of today’s generation of young performing artists took their first steps on stage as part of a Fabuleus production: Ultima Vez choreographer Seppe Baeyens, performance artist Sarah Vanhee, screen and stage actor Maaike Neuville and Karolien De Bleser, a permanent member of Ghent theatre company Ontroerend Goed. 

No playground

In the past 20 years, Fabuleus has consistently paired young adults with professional directors and choreographers with the aim of putting on quality productions that can be performed both for the general public and school audiences. That distinguishes it from your typical dance school and amateur theatre groups, as well as conventional theatre and dance companies that sometimes create shows with youth.

“When your starting point is the social lives of young people, and you create a show from improvisations with them, you often end up with playground-type performances, and that’s putting it respectfully,” De Lathauwer says. “What we said was: Let’s instead combine a director or choreographer’s vision, what they would like to narrate, with young people we select through auditions.”

That decision means that De Lathauwer and his colleagues are constantly straddling two opposing worlds, trying to steady themselves between the pull of business figures, agreements and concerns and offering young dancers and actors a safe, creative space away from all those pressures.

“We don’t have contracts with these young people, but we do have contracts with the cultural centres where we go and perform,” he says, “so we depend on the performers’ loyalty, on their commitment to do this. That requires us to create a certain atmosphere. We need to be a kind of house where young people feel as if they are artistically growing, but also one where they just feel good as a person.” 

50-show tours

This tension between commercial pressures and working with youth also often means turning down lucrative offers. The lifespan of a show is typically three years – from the very first auditions through the long rehearsal period to the premiere, which tends to be followed by a 50-show tour.

When a successful Fabuleus production ends, it’s typically when local and international requests to perform the show are still pouring in. “Of course, that’s not easy because you have heavily invested in these projects, and you know that if you put on 50 more shows that would really benefit your revenues,” De Lathauwer says.

We want to end each show on a high point, so that it never becomes a tedious job

- Dirk De Lathauwer

But no is no, he insists. “We want to end on a high point, so that it never becomes a tedious job,” he says. “You just decide in the interest of the young people: they’ve got to move on; they have to do something different now.” 

As for me, I didn’t make it past the final round of those 2007 auditions, but I didn’t incur any permanent scars in the process. Naturally, I went to see Gender Blender, the show that came out of it, which was choreographed by long-time Fabuleus collaborator Randi De Vlieghe.

Watching it from the audience, I felt as high as I did when I auditioned, amazed to see how much of the raucous, anything-goes energy of that spring day the choreographer and dancers were able to capture on the stage.

De Lathauwer says Gender Blender was a typical Fabuleus performance in that sense, albeit a slightly less conceptual one than the shows they have developed more recently. “We’ve always made a different kind of theatre, of dance,” he says. “Something very special becomes possible in terms of the level of authenticity and intensity on stage when you bring professional creators and youth together.”

Fabuleus perform Popcorn and Alleen de grootste nabijheid (Only the Closest By) from 7 to 30 November, across Flanders (both shows in Dutch)

Photo: Alleen de grootste nabijheid by Fabuleus & DOX
©Clara Hermans

More performance this month

Dis-moi wie ik ben
For additional proof that a generation of fresh, diverse voices has risen up, look no further than GEN2020, a project launched  years ago by ’t Arsenaal in Mechelen for young talent of diverse origins. The project is officially over, but continues to bear fruit: In this new production, Aïcha Cissé and Aminata Demba explore a conventional coming-of-age question – who am I? – but one that gets a teensy bit more complicated when your parents were born in a different country. (In Dutch) Until 31 January, across Flanders

’Nuff Said #04 (Special 100%Maroc)
This Antwerp-based art collective has been perfecting its irreverent blend of comedy, music and spoken word for close to 10 years, bridging mainstream and underground art. This autumn, organisers have invited local stand-up comedian Latif, US singer and MC Maimouna Youssef, local slam poet Youness Mernissi and UK breakout comedian and press darling Luisa Omielan, while the delectable Antwerp rabble-rouser Arbi El Ayachi will oversee the whole affair. (In Dutch and English) 3-5 November in Ghent, Antwerp and Genk

The Vagina Monologues 2.0
This is your chance to see one of those must-see classics with a Flemish twist. This performance brings together several names that will likely ring a bell – Idol contestant and former TV presenter Sandrine Van Handenhove, actor Nele Goossens and Antwerp rapper Slongs Dievanongs will perform Eve Ensler’s 1996 seminal political play on stage, which remains as relevant as ever. (We see you, Donald Trump.) (In Dutch) 13 November 20.15, Arenbergschouwburg, Antwerp