Twenty women accuse Jan Fabre of sexual harassment

Summary

In an open letter to a Flemish culture magazine, 20 women have come forward with accounts of sexual harassment and psychological abuse while performing as part of Jan Fabre’s dance company Troubleyn

‘A manipulative battle’

Twenty women have accused Flemish artist Jan Fabre (pictured) of sexual harassment in an open letter that was published on the culture website Rekto Verso on Wednesday evening. The women – all former dancers in Fabre’s company Troubleyn – accuse the Antwerp-based artist and choreographer of power abuse, sexism and sexual harassment.

Fabre, based in Antwerp, is one of Europe’s most famous and most awarded artists, working in the fine arts, theatre and dance. Because of his international profile, Rekto Verso also published an English version of the letter.

Both Antwerp’s labour tribunal and Flemish culture minister Sven Gatz announced yesterday that they were opening investigations into the allegations.

Eight of the women signed their names to the letter, while 12 more have remained anonymous. They claim that Fabre’s abuse has been a constant in the dance company for decades but that they were spurred to come forward following an interview with VRT last June.

‘Sacred bond’

The interview was addressing the revelation that one in four women in the cultural sector in Belgium had reported experiencing sexual intimidation. Fabre said in the interview that he had built up nothing but trust over the last 40 years with his dancers and that, while it “was good that they be defended, it has never been a problem in my company”.

He also said that he had noticed that his normal heated manner of communicating with his dancers during rehearsals had been questioned. “I’ve been told ‘be careful’ because the young dancers, they can feel nervous and manipulated,” he said. “But there is also something dangerous about this because it can easily destroy the relationship, a kind of sacred bond between the choreographer and the dancers.”

When I told people about my experience, they just shrugged their shoulders as if it was part of the job

- Open letter to Rekto Verso

According to some dancers, Fabre would only assign a solo or lead role to them if they agreed to sleep with him. “In the VRT interview, Fabre claims that in the 40 years he’s been working with the company,” the letter reads, “there have never been problems with sexual harassment. This is a lie. He is openly deflecting attention away from his own alleged acts of harassment.”

According to the letter, six dancers have resigned over the last two years, specifically citing sexual harassment and psychological cruelty. Last spring, a dancer wrote in her letter of resignation that she was leaving because of “the impact of a disrespectful and painful #metoo experience,” and that the work had become “no longer a blissful challenge and opportunity, but a manipulative battle”.

A performer who worked with Fabre 15 years ago said that “even then it came down to the proposition: ‘No sex, no solo’. When I told people in my environment about my experience, they just shrugged their shoulders as if it was part of the job.”

‘Unfair public trial’

Troubleyn was asked to respond to the accusations, and the response was printed alongside the letter. “We deplore this attack via the media, as this constitutes an unfair public trial,” reads the response. “Jan Fabre is being publicly shamed without any form of defence, on the basis of anonymous testimony and allegations that are difficult to verify. … we read various stories regarding Jan Fabre’s way of working. It’s no secret that Jan has a strong personality and a straightforward style as a director. However, this doesn’t mean that there would be a case of sexual harassment.”

The labour tribunal in Antwerp will handle the legal investigation into the allegations. “Following discussions with the prosecutor’s office, we have decided to open an investigation, said Pieter Wyckaert of the tribunal. “Bullying and unwanted sexual behaviour, to begin with. The investigation will reveal if there are further issues to deal with.” The investigation will include statements from all of the women involved “so this could take a while”.

Flanders’ culture minister, Sven Gatz, meanwhile, has asked his department to conduct its own investigation into the workings of the company and of Fabre’s methods. Fabre’s visual arts company Angelos as well as Troubleyn receive Flemish government funding.

“I am concerned about the contents of this letter,” said Gatz. “Every complaint about intimidation deserves to be taken seriously, whether it’s about inappropriate insinuations or unwanted physical contact. Everyone deserves to be able to work in an environment of honesty and trust. My administration will hear from all parties involved in this. I will wait for their conclusions before deciding to take any further steps.”

Photo: Dirk Waem/BELGA