Jan Fabre's Je Suis Sang (I Am Blood): A Medieval Fairy Tale
By Kathleen Dimmick
Je suis sang (I am blood)
By Jan Fabre
Montclair State University
Perhaps it was the proximity to Giants
Stadium in the Meadowlands, but the scenes of combat and bloodletting,
the precise, disciplined ferocity of Jan Fabre's Je suis sang,
oddly recalled the choreographed brutality of professional football.
At the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University in New Jersey
(where this production played for 3 performances in January, 2007),
audiences witnessed performers hurling themselves around the stage
for ninety minutes, subjecting themselves to extreme physical
challenges: hanging upside down while undergoing a series of mimed
cuttings and amputations; having heated glass vessels attached
to their bodies (once a medicinal remedy to purge unhealthy humours);
wielding swords and crashing to the floor in unending hand-to-hand
combat. Through it all, a medieval-looking Woman in Black, wearing
a book on her head and intoning Latin, functioned as a sort of
referee -- monitoring, commenting on, and somehow shaping our
perception of the proceedings.
Fabre, a Belgian artist currently living
in Antwerp, has been creating innovative performances for twenty-five
years. Focusing on the body as his essential subject, he often
combines choreography, visual tableaux, music, and text. Je
suis sang (originally from 2000) concerns itself with one
overriding obsession -- blood: how it both fills up and spills
out of a bodies, which are, as we are told, "wet on the inside
and dry on the outside." Fabre's subtitle, "A Medieval Fairy Tale,"
links this obsession with the Middle Ages, apparently to reinforce
the stated point that not much has changed since then in man's
attraction to the darker aspects of blood. The first line of text,
projected as a supertitle on the back wall of the stage, states
it outright: "It is 2007 and we're in the Middle Ages."
In Je suis sang, Fabre wastes
no time in fixing the attention on the body. As the audience enters
the theater it is confronted by a fleshy dancer in a red leather
G-string, moving lithely and seductively around the stage while
smoking a cigar, his blonde wig curled in courtly ringlets. This
animated Lucian Freud model, with his big naked belly and buttocks
and pungent cigar, alert us to what will be the piece's constant
preoccupation: the fact and substance of the human body and its
potential for both extreme beauty and for chaos and destruction.
The dancer will continue to function throughout the piece as a
kind of medieval Fool figure, part Eros, part Pan, promoting and/or
framing the various scenes of blood-letting.
Next come the images of war. A chorus of
warrior/dancers clad in pieces of armor that leave areas of thigh
and buttock provocatively exposed executes a rhythmic, martial
choreography. A Knight emerges from amongst the chorus and engages
in an epic combat with an unseen opponent, propelling himself
furiously around the stage while wielding a heavy, two-handed
sword with abandon. Between bouts with his phantom foe, the Knight
slumps, exhausted and literally bloody, as the Woman in Black
recites a Latin text.
According to a program note, Fabre uses
Latin to reinforce the link between ourselves and medieval society,
when Latin was the language of science and power, especially as
represented by the Church. Some of this text is translated into
French by two actors -- a kind of king and queen of the spectacle,
dressed in green gowns, and topped with large metal funnels not
unlike the Tin Woodsman's cap in the Wizard of Oz. They seem to
be guides to the changing state of scientific knowledge and medical
experimentation through the ages. Their text is translated into
English as supertitles projected on the back wall of the stage.
Fabre calls his text a poem, and some phrases are repeated again
and again: "Two things are certain and they are nearly the same:
death and the exceeding of limits." Other phrases have to do with
the end of the world, referring both to medieval and contemporary
Eventually, the battle armor is replaced
with beautiful white wedding gowns. In what may be Fabre's most
striking image, each dancer lifts her skirt, revealing white,
blood-stained panties, marking the onset of menstruation or the
effects of torn hymens. Onstage, this discovery is the occasion
for delight and glee, as the dancers jump and run, celebrating
the evidence of their womanhood.
But this image is soon topped by another,
as a dancer, clad only in white panties, crosses the stage singing
a popular American song from the sixties, "Son of a Preacher Man."
As the majority of the text up to then has been spoken in French
and Latin, this familiar bit of Americana, freighted with a host
of associations for an American audience, hits us in several complicated,
even contradictory, ways. We bring to it our knowledge of the
tradition of ministry in the rural south -- both its strictures
regarding sin and sexuality and its impassioned, theatrical form
of delivery. No doubt this song would have a different impact
on European audiences. But beyond the colloquial fact of the song,
the moment creates a delicious frisson as the dancer embodies
a provocative juxtaposition: the studied promenade of a topless
Las Vegas showgirl in the context of an avant-garde performance
at a state university in New Jersey. Is this some kind of strip
club/sports bar number masquerading as post-modern art, with all
its enlightened, non-objectifying assumptions?
The dancer's breathtakingly beautiful body
may elicit a concern for the fetishism of the female body on commercial
exhibit, but it occurs in the context of other, different exposures
to flesh -- the very un-beautiful Fool; the lumpen, middle-aged
female performer (clothed, to be sure) who moves gracelessly around
the stage; and a number of naked male dancers. The Vegas-like
song and dance number also serves as an introduction to what will
become vast stretches of nudity, male and female, during the remainder
of the performance. We are thus welcomed to that familiar phenomenon
in the theater, when, through repetition and over-exposure, one
finds oneself accepting the fact of nudity on stage as simply
another sort of costume -- a costume of skin. The potentially
exploitative aspect of female nudity is de-nuded by its very over-abundance.
Finally, the song lyrics themselves lightly link the display of
female beauty to one thematic strand in the piece -- the body's
vulnerability to the power of religious coercion. The sexual and
spiritual heat from the son of the preacher "reaches" the female
singer, as the repressive spirit of the Inquisition "reaches"
the dancers' bodies in later scenes of torture and persecution.
the green-clad figures place heated glass vessels on two panty-clad
dancers -- evoking the medieval medical practice of drawing out
the patients' humours -- the tempo of events escalates into a
growing rhythm of breakdown and chaos. Large metal tables, each
equipped with its own spotlight, are moved into various groupings
around the stage; naked dancers position themselves on the tables
in postures reminiscent of torture scenes from the Inquisition.
In one memorable sequence, a comic "Moustache Joe" character swigs
drunkenly from his (red) wine bottle, ineptly juggles with knives,
and viciously tortures a near-naked dancer, suspended upside down
on an upraised table. He mimes slicing her nipple, arm and stomach,
and sucks the imaginary blood from her wounds in a grotesque expression
of obsessive need -- for her blood.
The stage grows ever more slippery, as
quantities of liquid lubricate the floor. After slipping, sliding,
rolling, and hydroplaning across the stage, the dancers re-position
the tables, standing them on end and next to each other, forming
a long metal wall, reminiscent of a massive sculpture by Richard
Serra. The satyr-like Fool returns, now covered in a kind of avian
fuzz, looking as if he'd been punished -- literally "tarred and
feathered"-- for his sins. The company, still naked, enters tentatively
around one end of the metal wall, freezes in tableau, then exits,
leaving the Fool alone on stage, a kind of absurd yet haunting
Chekhovian outcast, left behind.
Jan Fabre has cited influences from visual
artists, including the work of Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, and
the performance artist Marina Abramowitz. For Je suis sang,
he turned to 15th- and 16th-century Dutch and Flemish painting,
in particular the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Jan van Eyck. The
visceral cacophony of the tableaux, in movement, light, and sound,
extends the influence of these artists into theatrical dimensions.
In addition, Fabre focuses on the use of metal as both a thematic
and theatrical motif, reinforcing another link to the Middle Ages,
when iron was the primary material of military and domestic toolmaking
-- hence the large metal tables, the armor, the funnel crowns.
He extends the conceit to the sound score, transposing 16th-century
polyphonic music to electric guitar and creating a contemporary
"heavy metal" sonic parallel to the motif of metallurgy in the
world of the physical staging.
Fabre's single-minded focus on the body
creates a refreshing and disturbing combination of images and
ideas. In this era of increasingly sophisticated use of media
in theater performance -- video, film, manipulated voice production
-- he continues to use the basic elements of the human performer
as the genesis for his ideas; and apart from the use of an amplified
score in this piece, Fabre's means typically avoid the technological.
His concern with defining and transgressing boundaries and with
exceeding limits is evident not only in the ways in which he celebrates
the expressive and performative capabilities of the human body
-- athleticism, risk, pain -- but also in his preoccupation with
its vulnerability and weakness -- decay, disease, and death.
This refreshing refusal of the high-tech
trends of much contemporary performance brings at one and the
same time an earthy, ancient feel to the enterprise and a potentially
disturbing focus on the human body, particularly the female body,
as an object of fetishistic attraction. Fabre calls himself a
"servant of beauty" and his performers "warriors of beauty." They
are certainly that, and much more as well. But at what point does
the emphasis on the beauty of the performer's body become a proto-fascist
obsession with a repressive aesthetic, a cult of beauty? While
the celebration of the human body in this sense may carry certain
fascist connotations, particularly for a European audience, Fabre's
insistence on the very corporeal vitality of all aspects of the
body, including its essential corruption, sets up a strong counter-force
to this concern. Luk Van Den Dries, a Belgian scholar who has
written extensively on Fabre's work, cites Heiner Müller's justification
of the quest for beauty and pursuit of aesthetic categories: "Because
beauty may possibly be an end to terror."
Indeed, the very scale, complexity and
precision of Fabre's endeavor dispels a concern about a reductive
aesthetic playground. The disciplined company of 21 dancers, actors,
and musicians provides limitless ways in which to meditate on
human possibility -- aesthetic, to be sure, but also, in Fabre's
hands, communal, social and political. As he focuses on the most
primal elements -- blood and flesh -- as well as the primary colors
-- blue, green and red -- he re-locates us in a kind of naive,
non-ironic spectacle, akin to sport. It is an impressive physical
accomplishment in service of a simple, bold message -- we are
blood, we worship blood, and, yes, we still need to spill blood.