December 9, 2013
The power of theatrical repetition
Jan Fabre’s first work at FIBA 2013 is a challenging, groundbreaking production
Among the first productions scheduled at the FIBA 2013 (Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires), the great event dedicated to international performing arts organized every two years by the Ministry of Culture of BA City, Troubleyn/Jan Fabre from Belgium offered last weekend De Macht der theaterlijke dwaasheden (The power of theatrical madness) at Teatro Regio. The home-base of this company is Antwerp and Jan Fabre has been its artistic head since it was established in 1986. Fabre was born in 1958 and he is a multidisciplinary visual artist, playwright, stage director, choreographer and designer. He is a very controversial creator and his productions are always challenging and groundbreaking. In 1982 he premièred his eight-hour piece It is theatre as it was to be expected and foreseen, and two years later he opened the Venice Biennale with The power…. Both works challenged the pillars of European theatre.
The power…. lasts four hours and a half. It is in fact a reconstruction of that 1984 historical theatre-marathon but with a new generation of performers. Even if almost 30 years have gone by, there are still many stimulating resources and images in this work. The secret is understanding and letting oneself get carried away by the code proposed by this performance, which allows — and invites — the viewers to leave the auditorium as many times as they want to. There are no intervals, so it is very likely that people will interrupt their contemplation for a while or definitely leave the theatre for good, because they saw what they had to see in just one hour.
One aspect of the show is defined by an atypical movement of the audience in a traditional theatre as the Regio. But to really grasp the spirit of The power…. it is strongly recommended to stay as long as you can. Because the work really challenges the conventional state of viewing: the same viewer might go from being fully absorbed, hypnotized and enchanted, to getting totally distracted, impatient and annoyed, since the performance is based on repetitive series and has no conventional plot.
The FIBA website informs that “Hans Christian Andersen’s story of ‘The emperor’s new clothes’ is one of the threads that connect the different strands of fragments,” but in fact that is an oblique reference. And it adds: “The sham, the pretence of the emperor stands as a metaphor for the illusion, for the lie of the theatre. Fabre wished that this performance preferably would take place in the red plush and the brass foil of the grand public theatres: in order that the contrast between the hypocrisy and the frivolity of this décor and the reality and the discipline of the performers on the scene would be made as big as possible.” So the Teatro Regio, with its traditional architecture inspired from the Spanish Baroque style, was a suitable space to stage it.
One of the most stunning, applauded and celebrated features of The power…. is, for sure, the incredible training of the group of actors/dancers/singers. Bearing in mind that the main strategy in the structure of the piece is repetition (even the costumes are like uniforms), most of the scenes are recurring series of actions. There may be a variation of the rhythm, of the intentions or any other detail, but there is a strong basis which stays the same for a long time and the scenes finish with strong images, such as the multiple breaking of piles of dishes. However, endings are just the beginning of the following scene; the performance never stops, it has slight pauses.
The perspiration and the panting of the performers (sometimes dressed, sometimes naked) is real because they get exhausted in real time and their bodies show all their physicality and materiality, something Fabre is very fond of (he usually works on stage with urine, blood, sweat, tears or sperm). Physicality and tiredness turn in some way the topic of his performance. That is where reality (sometimes uncontrollable) clashes with fiction (a controlled construction) and where Fabre exposes the essence of theatre: the creation of fiction with real live bodies. In this sense, this time he places on stage frogs and parrots, creatures that are ignorant of the category of fiction.
The power…. could be divided in two sections, one more focused on theatre and the other on dance. A structure which is repeated in many scenes is the cyclic enumeration of milestones in the history of Western opera, theatre and dance, emphasized by the repetition of the same actions with small variations. The enumeration is said out of context, what leads to reread that history from another perspective. These series are included in “Foucaldian” scenes where Fabre deals with discipline, surveillance, torture and punishment of individuals and bodies. In one of the scenes, some performers want to freely dance on minimalist Wim Mertens’s music piece Maximizing the audience (also composed on repetitive structures) but they are constantly repressed by others, while a ballerina of sorts turns her back on the audience, infinitely repeating the same series of classical ballet (“disciplined”) steps.
All along the performance there are projections of idyllic, mannerist paintings (as well as musical quotes of Richard Wagner or Bizet) which contrast with the actions and physicality of the actors, but at the same time the performers imitate many gestures and positions as well as “echoes” of those projected images. There is a scene which reminds of Pina Bausch’s Café Müller (one of the enumerated milestones), where the performers imitate the stereotyped posture of the pietà or of fainting ladies. What starts as poetic ends — by means of repetition — as an ironic and grotesque situation.