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Jan Fabre's "Je Suis Sang." Photo credit: Wonge Bergmann
Blood Lettings:
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
Kasser Theater
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 apocalyptic theologies.

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.

Jan Fabre's "Je Suis Sang." Photo credit: Wonge BergmannAs 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.


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