Jan Fabre puts wow factor into new edition of December Dance


Ready or not, visitors to the biennial festival December Dance are about to face a programme curated by the enfant terrible of Flemish choreography, who has been given free rein to bring Europe’s most eye-popping productions to Bruges

24-hour performance

You don’t often get a yoga class with your ticket to the theatre, but Mount Olympus is no normal play. The production, which will be performed for the first time in Belgium at the December Dance festival in Bruges, is 24 hours long.

So with the price of admission, you’ll get a cot to sleep on, a yoga session, a massage and access to the Concertgebouw’s eatery for refuelling. Don’t worry, Jan Fabre’s company Troubleyn will all still be on stage when you get back. Because it takes a long time to relate the trials of all those Greek gods and heroes.

Fabre, curator of this edition of December Dance, has forayed into mythology before, most directly with Prometheus-Landscape II, in which he portrays the Titan as victimised not by Zeus’ ultimate punishment of the liver-eating bird, but by watching mankind squander the light with which he has provided them.

Mount Olympus is no cheerier. Subtitled “To Glorify the Cult of Tragedy”, it contains all the elements we've come to expect from Fabre: blood, sweat, sex, writhing, oil-soaked naked bodies – and unbridled emotions.

It sounds almost crazy, expecting the audience – not to mention the dancers – to take part in a production for as long as it takes the earth to turn on its axis. But the ancient Greek Dionysian celebrations of drama and comedy, Fabre argues, went on for days.

It seems the audience agrees: Mount Olympus had its world premiere in Berlin last summer to a 30-minute standing ovation. Reviews consistently refer to it as a masterpiece.

This is not a choreographer

“The Greek matrix has always been very important to my work,” says Fabre – as well known for his visual art as for his performance art – from his studio in Antwerp. The myths “represent human nature: love, revenge, jealousy. Mount Olympus is a kind of research into catharsis. That word comes from ancient Greek, and it means cleansing. It’s a physical and mental cleansing – you purify yourself, physically and psychologically.”

Because of the extreme physical toll – or catharsis, you might say – that Mount Olympus takes on the dancers, it can’t be performed often. It’s sold out in Bruges; one performance is scheduled for January in Antwerp and one for next September in Brussels. 

I have chosen artists who are radical in the way they think and the way they move

- Jan Fabre

“The cast is made up of four generations of people, many actors and dancers who have worked with me over the last 30 years,” says Fabre.

The same can be said of the rest of the December Dance programme. Fabre has amassed companies with which he has worked over his remarkably prolific 30-year career. Every one of them delivers the unexpected, just like, I suggest, the provocative choreographer himself.

“I’m not a choreographer,” he responds without hesitation, “I’m an artist who uses the best medium for the idea that I have. I’m also not provocative. That’s just what the public and the press like to say. I have never created something to provoke. I do choose to experiment. But maybe something that is very normal to me is provocative to the audience.”

French director Coraline Lamaison will probably also succeed in being provocative to the audience. In Ex/Stase Narcisses-1, dancer Annabelle Chambon performs a kind of striptease, rolls around in white powder, does unspeakable things with a wig and occasionally shares the stage with live wolves. The message – well taken – is one of a human narcissism that is more and more impulsive.

Flemish choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, a long-time contemporary of Fabre, is also on the bill with his new Speak Low if You Speak Love, a meditation on how love can both build and destroy like no other emotion. The music of his collaborator Mauro Pawlowski will be performed on stage by South African singer Tutu Puoane.

Written on the body

Olivier Dubois, whose reputation in France for the avant-garde will – if it doesn’t quite yet – eventually equal Fabre’s, brings his Tragédie to the Concertgebouw. The production finds nine naked women and nine naked men in perfect step with each other until inevitable minor alterations lead to complete chaos (and not a little grinding).

“Yes,” Fabre admits, “I have chosen artists who are radical in the way they think and the way they move. They are all investigating. And if you are investigating, you are always on the edge.”

Fabre has run Troubleyn almost like a clearing house. His dancers become so good, so independent, they often move on to create their own companies. He  has clearly enjoyed bringing so many of them back to Flanders for December Dance.

“I think in that sense, I’m a very generous artist when I’m working with actors and dancers,” he says. “I always try to teach them to become their own choreographers, to be individuals. Because they are all great personalities. They are so independent, so strong. I’m very proud of these people.”

Also on the programme of December Dance is Fabre’s own Angel of Death (pictured above), a revival of a 2003 production in which a single dancer is surrounded by an audience that is, in turn, surrounded by large screens projecting images of William Forsythe. The legendary American choreographer seems to be dancing in a museum basement full of skulls and jars of formaldehyde.

It’s another message that the body should be pushed to its utmost limits or risk decay. “All these productions are using the body as a laboratory, as a battlefield,” says Fabre. “They are researching the organs, the skeletons, the skin, why we have theses bodies. Why do we move, how do we move and what does it represent socially and politically? I have chosen artists who consider beauty a bridge between the aesthetics of the body and the principles of ethics.”

2-13 December, Concertgebouw and other venues in Bruges