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Open letter: #metoo and Troubleyn/Jan Fabre
By (former) employees and apprentices at Troubleyn
In the interest of the audience and the wish to inform future generations of performing artists, we, former employees and interns who have worked with Jan Fabre in the context of Troubleyn vzw, have come together to share our experiences and to raise our voices in the context of #metoo and its associated social shifts.
This collective response is prompted by statements made by Jan Fabre during an interview with the public broadcast station VRT on Wednesday the 27th of June 2018. In the interview, Fabre shares his thoughts concerning the results of a survey on sexual harassment commissioned by the Flemish Minister of Culture, Sven Gatz.
The starting point for the interview is the headline “1 out of 4 women in the cultural sector experienced sexual harassment in the past year”. On camera for the interview, Fabre responds with surprise and disbelief when these numbers are presented. He says that he is supportive of the actions and measures taken by the Ministry of Culture, but adds that “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”.
To illustrate his statement, Fabre gives us insight into the daily life of the company: “For example, very recently, I made a performance called Belgium Rules. It was a homage to Rubens, Félicien Rops, Paul Delvaux, René Magritte. And suddenly I had to go and explain to the young actresses and female dancers that those artists were not sexists!”
Then, Fabre mentions another situation in which he was screaming through the microphone at one of the performers on stage, insisting that she needed to work out because she had “become too fat again”. Later, an assistant informed him that such comments might be hurtful. Fabre reassures the interviewer that his comments are “always fair” but observes people to be more sensitive these days. “A year ago,” he concludes, “all of this was not a problem”.
To outsiders these statements might sound trivial or matters of artistic freedom, but some of us were present at both of the moments Fabre describes and can attest to several inaccuracies in his account. The conversation on sexism in Belgium Rules was related to a written critique in Etcetera magazine that questioned Fabre’s staging of a series of art historical images, not the work of the late Belgian artists. The questions were directed at Fabre, not at Rubens.
The situation in which Fabre publically drew attention to a dancer’s weight was witnessed by some of us and involved a long and painful humiliation game in which Fabre insinuated that she must be pregnant. This bullying went on until the performer started crying.
This last situation is not trivial. Nor is it an isolated incident. It does not surprise us. It is just one example of the many confusing psychological games that one might encounter when working with Fabre. Humiliation is daily bread in and around the rehearsal space of Troubleyn. Women’s bodies in particular are the target of painful, often bluntly sexist criticism – regardless of their actual physical condition.
One day, he puts a performer on a pedestal; the next day, he systematically breaks him/her down, often scapegoating one person and stirring tensions in the group. Because Fabre’s moods are unpredictable and he is in charge of the space he creates as director, his behaviors make a tense environment in which everyone is at least implicitly encouraged to please the director on a regular basis.
Fabre’s position of power in the company is subtly reinforced through assigning nicknames to his performers. Some of these are supposed to flatter. Others are undeniably racist and denigrating. In the VRT-interview, Fabre says: “Of course! I think that all forms of life must be respected, also women”. Yet, in the presence of all the performers, he said to one woman “You are beautiful, but you don’t have a brain, like a chicken without a head”.
Or what “mutual respect” is Fabre talking about when he shouts at one of the non-European interns that if she didn’t perform better, he would send her back to her country?
Some might argue that this is part of an artistic strategy – that to achieve his desired results, Fabre feels he needs to push his performers past their limits. To this we would like to respond that the physical and/or emotional price is always paid by the performer, never by the company or the people in charge.
Fabre’s shifting attitudes and volatile behaviour 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. One performer concluded: “He calls us ‘warriors of beauty’, but you end up feeling like a beaten dog.”
Perhaps some might continue to insist that pain simply ‘belongs’ to certain artistic practices – a price to be paid for the making of ‘good art’. But picking on performers’ vulnerabilities is just the prelude to a darker, hidden business in Troubleyn. In the VRT interview, Fabre claims that in the 40 years he’s been working with his company, there have never been problems with sexual harassment. This is a lie. He is openly deflecting attention away from his own alleged acts of harassment.
As recently as the spring of 2018, one of the company’s performers resigned, citing reasons including sexual harassment. In written correspondence with the company, the performer explicitly states: “the impact of a disrespectful and painful #metoo experience affected me in my work and my inner freedom”. For her, the work became “no longer a blissful challenge and opportunity, but a manipulative battle and fight”.
Shortly after, a colleague who had witnessed two other performers leave the company for similar reasons resigned as well. Just last month, two more colleagues left. None of them wished to silently subject themselves to this environment any more. Altogether, this amounts to a total of six resignations in just the past two years – all of which either involve or protest against cases of sexual harassment, now often referred to as ‘#metoo’.
So, what does a #metoo experience mean in the context of Troubleyn?
Harassment, sexism and misogyny mean exactly what they have always meant. Through sharing and reflecting on our collected experiences and testimonies – one of which dates back 20 years – we have come to understand that Troubleyn company members have been navigating unprofessional and inappropriate relationship practices in the workplace for decades. 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 fifteen years ago states: “Already 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.”
Our collected experiences and testimonies are often so consistent with one another that Fabre’s behaviour shows clear patterns. For example, testimonies from eight different performers reveal that Fabre has an ongoing, semi-secret photography practice. For these so-called side projects, he frequently invites performers to his home under the premise of making visual art, and then turns the situation into an opportunity where he can approach the performer sexually.
One performer describes such a situation: “After at least one year in the company, Fabre asked me to do a project on the side that was paid under the table, and which I was told not to mention to anyone. This project was to be photographed by him in a situation that I still feel ashamed of talking about today. In this very uncomfortable, supposed working situation, I was offered alcohol and later drugs to feel more free (this is the only time in my life that I have taken drugs). This then led to Fabre asking me for more.”
These semi-secret photography projects and the exchange of sex for advancement have become a hidden currency in the company – granting the performer access to solos and/or future job opportunities based on their response to Fabre’s advances. When performers have rejected these advances and tried to maintain a respectful, professional relationship, their decisions were met with various degrees of subtle and less subtle forms of punishment, including stalking, verbal humiliation, aggression and manipulation.
Sometimes, performers are offered large sums of money – ostensibly as a fee for their participation in these private photoshoots. This itself is provocative if we take into account the low official wage of Troubleyn and the lack of payment for many interns.
One performer gives this description: “After the photo shoot and after having rejected his approaches, I felt horrible and I was upset. Fabre didn’t understand it and he told me I should not make a big deal out of it. I wanted to give him back the money, but he refused. He told me he made a lot more money selling these pictures, so that money was my share. He asked me if the reason I wanted to give the money back was because I felt like ‘a whore’.”
“A week later, he invited me for a fancy dinner and offered me a solo. In the following weeks, at odd times, Fabre kept on calling me, ordering me to buy sexy underwear and high heels for further photo shoots. I refused, but I felt I paid a price for it. Difficult episodes followed.”
“During rehearsals he would cut down my role and I would lose my parts to another dancer. I cannot be sure that this had anything to do with the photo shoot, but something shifted in his behaviour after. Once I didn’t follow his directions fast enough so he came to the stage, yelling with his fist in the air as if he was about to hit me. He said: ‘If it wasn’t the premiere, I would have taken you off my stage’. He continued to offer me photo shoots, which I always refused, and kept on mentioning the solo.”
Knowing that Troubleyn is structured according to a strict hierarchical logic, these punishments often go unnoticed during rehearsals because new performers in general are treated ‘harder’. Interns and performers who have lower positions in the Fabrean hierarchy are expected to withstand the humiliation, harassment and punishment just like their senior colleagues did in the past. This might be seen as a way of proving oneself, but it is, in fact, a way of collectively perpetuating a cycle of abuse in which one unwillingly becomes complicit.
To Fabre and his defenders, these situations might be understood as the expression of artistic freedom and – as such – a human right. It might be justified with the logic that employees should just leave the company if they disagree with certain modes of working that break ‘conventional’ rules.
But artistic workplaces are bound by regulations, just like other workplaces. When we asked the union to check Troubleyn’s own work policies (in Dutch ‘Arbeidsregelement’), we discovered that Art. 46 states that no act of violence, bullying, or sexual harassment during work is tolerated. (“Art. 46 Geen enkele daad die psychologische risico’s inhoudt met inbegrip van daden van geweld, pesterijen of ongewenst seksueel gedrag op het werk mag worden toegelaten of getolereerd. Dit geldt voor werkgever en werknemer, maar ook voor derden die in contact komen met werknemers voor de uitvoering van hun werk.”)
Our accumulating testimonies thus beg the question: What function do these rules serve when many of the people working at Troubleyn do not seem to understand or acknowledge the harmful repercussions of Jan Fabre’s behaviour, or worse, when Fabre defends his own behaviour as “always fair”? How complicit – intentionally and otherwise – are other employees of the organization?
One might wonder why the testifying performers did not speak up sooner. It’s simple: Troubleyn is not a place where one has an open conversation. In Troubleyn, the performers are generally expected to stay quiet unless they have received permission to speak. Even then, many unspoken rules apply to what one truly can and cannot discuss. Also, being accepted as a member of the company comes down to a process of endurance: successfully emerging from a long and difficult audition process with hundreds of other performers competing for the same job makes you feel like a ‘chosen one’.
But even after being offered a job, you continue fighting for your place among ‘loyal’ people who have been working with Fabre for years. Quitting the job, however, means more than facing unemployment. Everyone in the field is aware of the extent to which it can ruin your reputation, ambitions, and career.
In spite of our best efforts to open an inclusive conversation about #metoo in Troubleyn, we have not succeeded. Either the conversation was avoided, or performers were immediately confronted with an ultimatum. One performer reports: “When some of us didn’t entirely agree when Fabre justified his action, we were right away told that in that case we were ‘free to leave’. The young performers who decided to stay were then asked to write a letter to Troubleyn in which they were expected to explain why they wished to keep on working with Fabre, as if it was a matter of loyalty.”
From this, we have concluded that these issues will not be solved from within company Troubleyn. We have asked for help from several organizations in the field, but no one seems to have the mandate to intervene in the situation at Troubleyn. With the help of the union, we sought legal advice but quickly realized that the judicial system is too slow.
How can we wait two or three more years for our voices to be heard and allow new colleagues to remain uninformed about what has happened in the past? We cannot stand silently by as the resignations of our colleagues accumulate, and we witness how Troubleyn twists and obscures our colleagues’ motivations for leaving the company.
Alongside what we’ve seen, heard, and/or endured, we want to acknowledge that many of us also have learned during our time at Troubleyn. However, at the same time, many of us have experienced sexism and abuse of power directly. Some of us have only been witness to these practices, but all of us demand that they stop.
When Fabre says that the ‘secret bond’ between director and performer is harmed when awareness around sexism and sexual harassment grows, we want to remind him that it is precisely the inability to create an open, aware and respectful work environment that poses a real threat to any artistic relationship.
Speaking up about the issues at Troubleyn is not an attack on ‘artistic freedom’, but rather an attempt to break open a very narrow understanding of what freedom is, or can be. (Freedom for whom? To do what?) In doing so, we want to raise some fundamental questions: What are we so desperately protecting and justifying in the name of art? Who do we protect, and why would we want to continue to follow this course?
The problem neither begins nor ends at the doorsteps of Troubleyn. First and foremost, this letter should be read as an attempt to end a culture of silence and to address toxic work environments in the artistic field at large. This letter is not a personal reckoning. By being transparent about our own experience of Fabre’s behavior, we hope to start a much-needed conversation in the field.
We all carry responsibilities.
Today, our responsibility is to speak up.
We ask the artistic community to support and invest in this conversation. We ask the board of Troubleyn to take their responsibility. We ask the government and their institutions to also consider their role in holding individuals and organizations accountable.
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.
Today our voices matter. They will be heard.
We, (former) employees and apprentices at Troubleyn,
sign in solidarity and in support of all our colleagues,
Erna Ómarsdóttir, performer, 1998/99-2003
Geneviève Lagravière, performer, 2002-2004
Louise Peterhoff, performer, 2003
Maryam Hedayat, apprentice production, 2012
Merel Severs, 2012-2018
Nelle Hens, 2012-2015
Marleen Van uden, performer, 2016-2017
Tabitha Cholet, performer, 2016-2018
Anonymous performer, 2000-2001, male
Anonymous apprentice, 2001, female
Anonymous performer, 2001-2004, female
Anonymous performer, 2002-2003, female
Anonymous apprentice, 2003, non-binary
Anonymous employee, 6 years, female
Anonymous performer, 2004-2007, female
Anonymous performer, 2 years, female
Anonymous performer, 2014, female
Anonymous performer, 2 years, female
Anonymous performer, 6 years, male
Anonymous apprentice/performer, 2017-2018, female
Engagement and Acod Cultuur, the socialist union for cultural workers, have followed up the testimonies related to this letter. Acod assure their reliability, support the critique and guarantee the protection and support of the testifying artists.
The media is asked explicitly to handle the subject of this letter respectfully, including the identities of the signees and the position of Jan Fabre/Troubleyn. Images of the signees and Jan Fabre/Troubleyn can be used only when explicit permission is given by the individuals pictured.