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Jan Fabre charged with sexual harassment and abuse of power following investigation

15:10 29/06/2021

Belgian artist Jan Fabre (pictured) will have to stand trial for abuse of power, use of physical violence and sexual harassment, following an investigation by Antwerp’s labour tribunal. The investigation, which lasted nearly three years, followed a public accusation of unacceptable behaviour by 20 performers in Fabre’s company Troubleyn.

According to the labour auditor, there is sufficient evidence to brings charges against the Antwerp artist and choreographer, now 62. The initial hearing is scheduled for September.

In 2018, 20 women who were then or had previously been involved with Troubleyn published an open letter on the culture website Rekto Verso. The move to write the letter followed an interview that VRT carried out with Fabre earlier that year in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

In the interview, Fabre said that there was “no problem until a year ago” with certain kinds of confrontations and that “there is something dangerous” about altering the relationship, “the secret bond”, between choreographer and dancer.

He went on to say that he asked a lot of his dancers, physically and mentally. “That can only work through mutual trust,” he said. “Trust in each other and in the choreographer with whom they are working. That’s how it has been for 40 years in my company, and it has worked fantastically.”

He then said that he was glad that women were being listened to but that “in our company, for 40 years, there has never been a problem. Never.”

Sexism, racism, humiliation

Many women who had worked for Fabre during those 40 years begged to differ and so published the letter, which detailed the mental and physical abuse they had to suffer under his direction. They pointed to his tirades about their bodies, their ethnicities and their intelligence.

They took on some of the claims Fabre made in the interview. “The situation in which Fabre publicly drew attention to a dancer’s weight,” read the letter, “was witnessed by some of us and involved a long and painful game of humiliation in which Fabre insinuated that she must be pregnant. This bullying went on until the performer started began to cry. This situation is not trivial, nor is it an isolated incident. It is just one example of the many confusing psychological games that one might encounter when working with Fabre.”

Members of Troubleyn “have been navigating unprofessional and inappropriate relationship practices in the workplace for decades,” the letter continued. “This is not a new generation being more ‘sensitive’. Nor is it ‘a problem that started a year ago’.”

One performer who worked with Fabre 15 years ago stated: “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.”

A scene from Mount Olympus
Jan Fabre is know for pushing the envelope, such as his 2015 production Mount Olympus, a 24-hour theatre marathon featuring erections, orgies and a whole lot of blood

Interviews with dancers that followed were more detailed – and more shocking – than the open letter. Dancers were offered cash, they said, to pose nude or masturbate while Fabre took photos of them. They were, they said, afraid to say no for fear it would hurt their standing in the company.

One told the New York Times that Fabre insisted she use cocaine during the shoot, and she finally did so after refusing several times. She called her years at Troubleyn “a trauma” and said that “in the end, you get a bit numb.”

A week after Rekto Verso published the letter, a second open letter was published, signed by 126 Belgian choreographers, including such luminaries as ballet director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Wim Vandekeybus, founder of Ultima Vez.

“We have been part of a system, sections of which have silently tolerated and even enabled reprehensible behaviours,” the letter reads. “Together we will no longer support a culture of hypocrisy and denial in the name of art. Together we will work towards a more inclusive understanding of artistic freedom.”

Fabre has always denied all of the allegations, saying in a statement: “As a producer, I know I can come across as very direct. It was never my intention to intimidate or hurt people psychologically or sexually. I would like to urge women who claim my behaviour was unacceptable to use the available procedures. I will fully co-operate.”

Photo, top: ©Kurt Desplenter/BELGA


Written by Lisa Bradshaw