Margareta Sörenson*

Mount Olympus, to Glorify the Cult of Tragedy. Concept and direction: Jan Fabre. Choreography: Jan Fabre and the dancers. Text: Jeroen Olyslaegers, Jan Fabre. Dramaturgy: Miet Martens. Guest-dramaturges: Hans-Thies Lehmann, Luk Van den Dries, Freddy Decreus. Music: Dag Taeldman.

Before something as enormous, high, wide and great as Jan Fabre’s Mount Olympus, writing a review seems like a very limited act. As if it will be possible to discuss only bits and pieces, while the mastodon-sized project as a whole entity, and as an art experience, slowly moves away into the fog of memory.

However, Jan Fabre, choreographer and performance artist, assisted by the leading figure in post-dramatic analysis, Hans-Thies Lehmann, created an entity—a production as one extra-large entirety, a gesamtkunstwerk—by building and structuring a multitude of materials from ancient Greece: dramatic texts, historical research, theatre history and art history. Composed of all the elements even possibly considered to be ”theatre,” Fabre has built a theatre temple over the Greek theatrical tradition, this being the most striking and engaging aspect of this performing art event, with its flavour of Olympus. Epic in both the classical meaning of narrative, and in the modern meaning of ”extra-ordinary” in every respect, it also provided the title for the entire September 2017 Bitef Festival, where I saw the production: an ”Epic Trip.” Not all the metaphorical bricks and materials of this present-day temple are equally striking, but the event as such was overwhelming.

In my quick notes, I wrote: why do I have the impression that I’m seeing something for the last time? Is this the end, and a final example of a style that enriched the performing arts during the 1980s and ‘90s? Unfair to call it a style, concept or genre; it is much more a proof of preparation and study, long periods of workshops and rehearsals, a wish to embrace not only the piece and the audience, but to create an atmosphere, a taste and a smell of a place, a time, a culture no longer accessible here and now, yet close to today’s viewers.

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Compared to the late twentieth-century century theatrical worlds of Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine or Robert Wilson, Fabre’s Mount Olympus cannot be called innovative as performing art, but it is a solidly structured event, subtitled To Glorify the Cult of Tragedy. This mountain of performing arts (including dramatic theatre, dance, acrobatics, events, the grotesque, visual arts, music) was on stage with some 30 performers from 6:00 p.m. one evening to the same hour the next day. I saw the performance in a conference centre outside Belgrade, a transformable, huge and anonymous space where a gigantic audience was also invited to various bars, lobbies and rooms for breaks: resting and relaxing, eating and drinking, even sleeping.

It is outstanding to experience so much time condensed into 24 hours, an act of concentration for everyone on stage and in the audience. Needless to say, such a majestic performance cannot be equally ingenious, brilliant or thrilling throughout all the scenes. Even a silent intermission turned into an installation before the very eyes of the viewers—a concept that only a choreographer from the contemporary dance world can safely master. In the morning hours, there was a one-hour and 40-minute break, during which the actors took their places in white sleeping bags onstage, inviting everyone else to rest where they could. Even this peaceful, silent hour of rest was shared, in the sense of being public. Sleeping or resting actors, like white caterpillars waiting to spread their wings as butterflies, was an effective metaphor for the art of transformation, which is the heart and mind of theatre. The innocent-looking, white sleeping bags suggested images of a dormitory, children at summer camp, the chastity of nuns and monks.

That was a moment of purity and asexuality, a bubble of innocence in an ocean the play dove deeply into: the complexities of lust, sex, love, and passion—on the one hand, just what we have good reason to imagine were foremost in the ancient Greek Festivals of Dionysus and what were reflected in the Greek drama; and on the other hand, timeless. Particularly the depiction of lust in Jan Fabre’s vision of Mt. Olympus comes close to being current with our own time, with thick layers of references to gay culture, to the grotesque, to rave parties and to the orgiastic style of subcultures.

The aesthetics of vase painting in ancient Greek art is a central pillar in the majestic patchwork that is Jan Fabre’s Mount Olympus. Photo: Wonge Bergmann

Fabre’s delight over nudity and references to gay culture were in line with his reputation as a permanent enfant terrible. However, this Mount had room enough for more perspectives than one, and for anyone familiar with the ancient Greek vase paintings, the Zorba dance, danced onstage by naked men, was just adequate.

On the other hand, the gay perspective risks marginalizing women, again presenting a new-but-still-male gaze, objectifying women. But both Fabre and Lehmann know better, and the Greek drama has offered to the world’s dramatic literature some of the richest and most complex female characters, including such portraits as Medea, Antigone, Electra and Phaedra, to name but a few, all represented in Fabre’s work. The gender balance of Mount Olympus had clearly been considered seriously: in almost all the scenes there were as many men as women onstage, and men-only sequences were followed by women-only parts. And, most central, the actors were cast in a kind of group-think, a ”corps de théâtre” moving and acting as one body. The group-ness of the actors gave us, among other things, the military organisation of the ancient Greek culture, a brilliant illustration and comment. A very long scene showing a danced military drill took the “split” feeling of uniform collectivity to new heights. A drill sergeant sings/cries out his commands, the soldiers answer while training with skipping ropes—but, this time, the ropes are metal chains, clashing against the floor with a rough, hard and metallic ”soldier-like” sound. By and by, voices from the audience started to join the soldiers, answering them—and there we were: both observers and co-actors, with the unpleasant feeling of partaking in a totalitarian system, even admiring its aesthetics, and easily slipping into a feeling in which everyone is embraced by this more or less fascist wave of rhythm, subjugation and obedience.

Rope skipping with chains, an image of the military drill that is one of many layers in the ancient Greek culture, well demonstrated by Jan Fabre in Mount Olympus. Photo: Wonge Bergmann

The narrative structure of Mount Olympus does not retell the dramas and their stories as they normally are told, but divides and groups them thematically into four six-hour acts. Each act is divided into parts of one to one-and-a-half hours, and each of those into scenes—sometimes dance only, sometimes theatrical dance or mime, pieces of shadow plays and masks interspersed. Music accompanies and embraces the whole performance—played or sung live, or recorded, or employing other vocal or sound techniques, sometimes just a simple drum giving the strict rhythm for the movements of the ensemble. Political power and its demand for obedience is one structural element that floats through the performance, and the obedience and revolt that come with them, love and marriage being yet another one. Lust, sex and the joy of the Dionysian Festival was yet another, carried by the only two actors with defined characters through all the 24 hours—two versions of Dionysus, one male, one female.

The generous 24 hours of Mount Olympus gives place and space to differences and contrasts. Sometimes the huge set works like turning pages in a schoolbook on Greek antiquity; sometimes it presents a short, instructional version of the great classics. Hours pass; and any audience member has plenty of time to reflect on the theatre, on dance, on signs, techniques, the acting and props onstage. Or to contemplate the meaning of the materials, such as the shining white textiles in different sizes, folded or hung on bodies, becoming dresses, ”togas”, bed linen. Onstage effects such as blood—color or real blood; fake textile meat or real meat?—on theatre as a phenomenon, as history and contemporaneity.

The Dionysiac aspect: a flood of feast, bodies, lust, colors. The sources of theatre found in the festivals of Dionysus are translated into a contemporary rave party: Jan Fabre adapts and uses the ancient Greek tradition in a 24-hour long fresco of love and violence, life and death in both war and the human mind. Photo: Wonge Bergmann

Since its first perfomance in 2015, Mount Olympus has been performed four or five times a year in new places around the world. Climbing this mountain is a trip worth  calling “epic.” And perhaps it marks the end of an era, where theatre and the performing arts still had the right to be out of proportion. 


*Margareta Sörenson is a theatre and dance critic, writer and journalist, researcher and lecturer. As a critic, she works for the daily national Expressen in Sweden, as well as Danstidningen, the dance journal covering Scandinavia. She has written books on theatre, performing arts for young audiences, puppetry and dance; her most recent is Mats Ek. Ms. Sörenson has contributed to numerous anthologies and international journals, such as Alternatives Théâtrales and the World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Art, published by UNIMA. She teaches dance history and choreography at LTU, a Swedish university, in its program for dance teachers. Margareta has been the president of IATC since 2014.

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Climbing Mount Fabre