The Power of Theatrical Madness: Jan Fabre's Orgy of Tolerance

By Wehle, Philippa | TheatreForum, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Power of Theatrical Madness: Jan Fabre's Orgy of Tolerance


Wehle, Philippa, TheatreForum


"Everything's available/and when I say everything/I mean each and every thing/you'd ever imagine..." These lyrics, by Belgian pop artist Dag Taeldeman, sung during Flemish artist Jan Fabre's latest work, Orgy of Tolerance, aptly describe the excessive nature of our consumer society that is the target of Fabre's new piece. Seen at the 2009 Avignon Festival, Orgy is composed of a series of outrageous sketches (tribute is paid to Monty Python's Flying Circus throughout) designed to lampoon an overly permissive society that accepts any and all behavior as normal.

Fabre, performance artist, theatre maker, choreographer, playwright, and visual artist, now 51, has been stirring up audiences since the 1970s when he first became known for burning bundles of bank notes and writing the word "money" with the ashes (Money Performance, 1979), or making drawings with his own blood. His 1984 Power of Theatrical Madness, a four-hour operatic marathon featuring live frogs, a blindfolded tenor, and dancers running in place until they dropped, was commissioned by the Venice Biennale.

Fabre's interests are many. His sculptures made from the wings of thousands of beetles he has collected over the years is just one example of how far ranging his talents are. He is also a noted playwright whose plays are published in French and Dutch, by L'arche in Paris and Meulenhof/Manteau in Amsterdam and Antwerp. As for performance art, he has created over forty performance pieces since the 1970s.

His performance work ranges from the complex and fascinating Je suis Sang, (I Am Blood, a Medieval Fairy Tale) that Fabre was invited to create for the vast Cour d'Honneur in the Palais des Papes in Avignon in 2001 to more intimate pieces such as L'ange de la mort (The Angel of Death), and Sleepy Dusty Delta Day, a dance and performance piece based on Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe," both of them created for the Croatian performer Ivana Jozic, who joined Fabre's company in 2003.

Fabre is noted for his powerful stage pictures as well as his continued interest in all facets of the human body and the possibitity of its transformation into something beyond the body as we know it. In The Angel of Death, for example, three spirits meet somewhere between life and death to explore, or so it seems, what the self might become when it is no longer confined in the human body. [Photo 1]

Je suis sang investigates the possibility of creating a future being composed of liquid, a being no longer confined by flesh or bone. Consequently, many of the show's beautiful and intriguing stage pictures include varying combinations of bodily fluids (blood, urine, sperm, and tears), that serve to weave together the threads of the search. [Photo 2]

L'Histoire des larmes (The Story of Tears, Avignon 2005), part dance, part poetic text, follows the quest of a medieval Knight to find a way out of his limited world. His despair is shared by the performers who weep tears for his and their plight. Their tears take many forms, including a number of beautiful large glass vases carried by nude dancers [Photo 3] who put them down and gingerly balance themselves on them in such a way that it seems that they are unable to separate themselves from the grief that they share with the Knight. [Photo 4] In Orgy of Tolerance, we see another side of Fabre, his love of farce. He may no longer be an angry young man, but he is still very much an iconoclast, lashing out at a society that will tolerate any and all behavior, in the form of an unrestrained, no holds barred, hilarious and grotesque cartoon. Made in collaboration with the members of his Antwerp-based Troubleyn company, Orgy opens with a wildly over-the-top number that is not only outrageous, it is extremely funny. The performers, two men and two women, in white sleeveless T-shirts and men's briefs, [Photo 5] are stretching, doing breathing exercises and jumping up and down as if warming up for a competition. …

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