Jan Fabre, one of Belgium’s most notable artists and theater directors, is under investigation for sexual misconduct after 20 former members of his Troubleyn troupe, including twelve anonymous sources, signed a letter in the Belgian magazine Rekto:Verso accusing him of sexual harassment and misconduct.
The letter was penned in response to Fabre’s statements on the public broadcast station VRT last June about his distaste for the culture of the #MeToo movement. He offered his defense of total artistic freedom in response to Flemish culture minister Sven Gatz’s survey on sexual harassment. The survey, commissioned in 2017 after several sexual misconduct scandals broke out in the local and international media, has found that one in four women in the cultural sector had experienced sexual harassment in the preceding year.
Fabre is famous for his dark, provocative performances which blur the boundaries between the stage and life, often involving bodily fluids, nudity, and sexual acts. His domineering, quirky personality has earned him the reputation of an art world rock star. He has responded to the letter stating that he supports the ministry’s procedures; however, he adds, “there is also something dangerous about this. Because, the relationship, the secret bond between director/choreographer and actor/dancer … you will in fact also destroy and harm it incredibly.”
The Troubelyn performance group, established in 1986, receives 936,000 Euros (~$1,093,000) per year from the Flemish Cultural Ministry (for a five-year term) and is subject to a minimum of two audits per year which specifically document the treatment of artists and employees, says Eva Vanhengel, the ministry’s spokesperson. No accusations had been made during the ministry’s previous audits on the company, Vanhengel adds. The ministry was made aware of the issue of potential sexual harassment after Fabre’s public statements and the letter published in Rekto:Verso.
“It’s important, in culture, that matters regarding ‘Me Too’ are discussed,” said Vanhengel in an email to Hyperallergic. “However, the minister believes everybody in this matter should be heard. All parties will be offered an opportunity to present their version of the facts.”
The scandal began and unfolded in the press and has taken unprecedented dimensions, with the recurrent headline “No sex, No solo,” referring to a dancer’s allegations that Fabre used sex as an artistic currency and routinely abused his power. This same dancer, who worked with Fabre 15 years ago, anonymously states: “when I told people in my environment about my experience, they just shrugged their shoulders as if it was part of the job.”
In the letter, former employees (many of whom had resigned), describe a culture of humiliation and bullying within the company:
Fabre’s shifting attitudes and volatile behavior have affected the self-esteem and self-worth of many employees. Many of us needed to seek psychological help after leaving the company and have described our experiences as having left traumatic scars on our being. He calls us “warriors of beauty,” but you end up feeling like a beaten dog.
Now, the culture ministry’s audit and the police’s request for a legal investigation may have grave financial and legal repercussions for Fabre.
The artist has denied the accusations, hiring the notoriously fierce lawyer Hans Riedel, who complained on public television station VRT that the allegations enact a “trial by media.”
“The police investigation will decide If there is any truth to the accusations,” he said. “Mr Fabre is very shocked, particularly about the way the anonymous complaints came out. His rights have been violated. This is an orchestrated campaign, where all kinds of uninformed opportunists have joined the choir.”
Fabre’s company declined to respond to Hyperallergic’s requests. “Since we do not want to run a process in the media and we want an objective investigation by the official authorities,” stated the public relations and marketing organization Reputations, which was retained by Fabre prior to the scandal.
The publicist sent the following official statement to Hyperallergic by email:
In the open letter we read various stories regarding Jan Fabre’s way of working. It’s no secret that Jan has a strong personality and a straightforward style as a director. However, this doesn’t mean that there would be a case of sexual harassment. As a company, we ask and receive a great deal from our female as well as male actors and dancers, allowing us to produce outstanding and radical theatre. Any artistic process may at times lead to sensitive grounds: what may be perfectly acceptable to one actor or dancer, may not be acceptable to another. However, a clear line is drawn at Troubleyn: everything must happen with mutual consent and respect. We force no-one [sic] to engage in certain actions that are perceived by him or her to be improper behavior. We have applied this basic philosophy for the past 40 years, and have explicitly stressed it once again internally due to the media attention in 2017. Troubleyn disputes the insinuations that inappropriate behavior is covered up. In the letter, it’s stated that there is no open platform where this can be brought up. This is incorrect. Moreover, our work rules provide the possibility to consult a person of trust internally, or to call upon the external prevention service IDEWE (an independent group for employee safety).
After the culture ministry’s survey was published, Gatz launched an action plan establishing complaint channels for victims of harassment and abuse. The plan also trains chosen members within organizations, as well as executives and members of the board. In the future, provisions on misconduct will be included in management agreements and subsidy conditions.