„I have measured the entire world and drunk from the gutter.“
Due to the specific form of his “performance of performances”, director Jan Fabre has asked Bitef not to have the usual Meeting the Authors follow-up discussion. Since his performance “Mount Olympus - to Glorify the Cult of Tragedy” lasts 24 hours, announcing the discussion would have dragged the audience out. “During the breaks”, the director said, “the audience needs a rest too”. Besides, asking questions about a performance before seeing it through could spoil the experience. Therefore, instead of a round table, Jan Fabre and Milena Bogavac, a dramaturge and the experienced moderator of Bitef programme Meeting the Authors had a “secret discussion at a public venue”. Among three thousand people, during the first “Dream Time”, and after signing his book “Night Diary”. This is the full interview.
MILENA BOGAVAC: Mister Fabre, I’d like to remind you that you and I have already talked once - at the opening of 45th Bitef, here, in Sava Centre. Back then, you came with the performance “Prometheus Landscape II”, so I would like to pick up where we left off. Apart from the fact that “Prometheus Landscape II” and your new performance both employ the motifs of ancient tragedy, another similarity is that on the both you have worked with the same team of associates - the author of the text, the dramaturge, the composer. Therefore, my first question concerns the link between the two productions, and the nature of your long-lasting cooperation with these authors.
JAN FABRE: I have made three different versions of Prometheus in my life: the first one towards the end of the seventies, the second in 1988, and the third one a couple of years ago. Ancient characters such as Prometheus or Sisyphus can be found in my early works and texts, the ones created during the seventies and eighties. I have always wanted to infuse my work with ancient patterns. I used to make statues of bronze on that topic. What is worth mentioning is that all those works were for me a kind of mental preparation for “Mount Olympus”. When it comes to my associates, I’ll start with Miet. Miet Martens is my permanent dramaturge, I have been working wither for thirty three years. She is very important to me, she is my inspiration. She is like an instrument which keeps playing to me, talking to me and is very often critical. She is fantastic and working with her is fantastic. We have developed a deep, spiritual friendship over the years. To me, she is irreplaceable both as an associate and as a friend. As for the composer, I should tell you that Dag Taeldeman is one of the most famous Belgic pop-artists; he makes excellent pop music and is a wonderful dancer. He came to me as an actor, in one of the performances. It was in 2000 and back then, I saw him as a performer. In the following years, he became a famous composer and pop artist. Since then, we have developed our cooperation on a different level. He has composed the music for my various projects. Like all the performers, Dag was present at all the rehearsals. We worked every day for twelve months. Literally every day. Our rehearsals would begin at eleven and last until three the following morning. The composer would work at the rehearsals, writing and improving music for various acts. The same with the writer - Jeroen Olyslaegers was writing and rewriting during the rehearsals… It was an on-going workshop. I was truly happy we could devote ourselves to that work for the whole year.
MILENA BOGAVAC: That was another thing I wanted to ask. How many hours of rehearsals does it take to create a 24-hours performance?
JAN FABRE: Six years of preparation with the dramaturge, writer and the composer, and twelve months of rehearsals. The troupe had daily classes and trainings in yoga, kendo, ballet… and after that my lectures. After that, we would start the rehearsals which would last until midnight and afterwards we would stay and discuss all of it until three or four in the morning. And so it went on for a full year!
MILENA BOGAVAC: I have noticed some other famous names in the programme, some renowned visiting dramaturges for example. You have worked with H.T. Lehmann, the most important theoretician in post-Aristotle’s era, and also with Luc Van Den Dries. How did they contribute to this project?
JAN FABRE: My dramaturge Miet Martens who, as I have already mentioned, has been my closest associate for thirty years, thinks that having other dramaturges at the project can be favourable for our work. The fact that the two of us know each other so well can represent extenuating circumstances. That is why the visiting dramaturges analyse the rehearsals with us, because they do that from a fresh point of view. Luc van Den Dries is a dramaturge we invite most often. He teachers at the University of Antwerp and has been following my work for a long time. Since the eighties, he has published several books and numerous articles on my work. He knows my aesthetics very well but is also truly critical. He visits the rehearsals once a month, observes them and then criticizes me. He tells me things like: “This semiotics is unclear… No one will understand this approach… Why this… Why that… Why, why, why?” That can be truly productive. The similar thing is done by Freddy Decreus. I have known him since 1985, he has interviewed me often and has written often about my work. There is also one lady we invite, Ellena, who specializes in ancient drama and Greek tragedies. They were invited to come and live in Antwerp for a month, and visit the rehearsals on daily basis. We had an ample correspondence. Like Freddy Decreus, she is a scholar. We have exchanged numerous letters during this process. It is really good when, during a work like this, you can rely on some external help. Hans Thiess Lehmann knows my work too. He is deeply interested in my processes and especially in the evolution of my work over the years.
MILENA BOGAVAC: In your book “Night Diary”, you very often refer to your actors and performers as “warriors of beauty”. I would like to know how do you “recruit” those warriors and what kind of training do they have to have in order to be able to defend the beauty?
JAN FABRE: There are four generations of performers in this production. Els Deceukeller is a legendary Belgic actress, we have cooperated for thirty years. Marc Moon van Overmeir is also a legend. Then, there is Anny Czupper and the generation of forty-year-olds. They have been with me for twenty years. Then the generation of actors in their thirties, and then the youngest ones, who are twenty-something. Almost all of them have already worked with me on various projects. For this performance, I have travelled Europe and seen over fifty dancers and actors, who I have been recommended. It was a travelling audition which led me to Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam, Brussels and many other towns. I have chosen the best five who, then, came to Antwerp to work with our troupe. They had some kind of master class for two months. In the end, three of them stayed and worked on the performance. That is the ritual I perform before every big production. I go to see people, many people…. And I want to watch them for a long time before I reach my final decision. Those are my auditions.
MILENA BOGAVAC: I find it truly interesting when you refer to the projects in your impressive career. It reminds me of something I’ve read in your interview for our festival blog. You said that an artist needs his entire life to grow young. So, my question is: does an artist grow younger if he deals with ancient topics?
JAN FABRE: You mean tragedies?
MILENA BOGAVAC: Yes. There is this eternal question: is ancient art the oldest or the youngest, since it was created when the world was young?
JAN FABRE: Ancient art is, in my opinion, truly contemporary. For me, Medea is a story of a Syrian mother who kills her children because she doesn’t want them to be raised by ISIS. Those are all contemporary stories, about me or you. It’s just that there was more cruelty in them than there is in the world of today.
MILENA BOGAVAC: The critics are mostly unanimous that the main character in “Mount Olympus” is time. I would like to hear your opinion about time; time in contemporary society but also about the treatment of time in your performances.
JAN FABRE: Time is the key element of all my works ever since the seventies. Time is something you can see in my drawings too. Time is almost like a music score, something you “see” but you actually feel in my artwork. You can feel the time I needed to create that work. I believe in time. On stage, in theatre, time is truly important. Time is like a net, and in that net, diversity is created. Slowly, that net catches various contents.
MILENA BOGAVAC: Thank you for the inspiring answers. In the end, I’d like to ask a personal question. What does it feel to be called genius by everyone, and how do you feel upon hearing that your performances are revolutionary?
JAN FABRE: Success is a deadly poison. I’ve never believed in success! (laughs)
MILENA BOGAVAC: Really?
JAN FABRE: Really. I have been completely occupied with my art for thirty years now. I have measured the entire world, side by side, I have even drunk from the gutter several times. I have lived both extremes, I know both sides… And that’s good for an artist. To be celebrated but also humiliated. It keeps us fit.
MILENA BOGAVAC: Thank you for this interview - inspiring and atypical for our festival. This is the first time we have had Meeting the Author session without the audience.
JAN FABRE: Thank you for your understanding.
Interviewed by Milena Bogavac