Dancer rising from the dead: Jan Fabre revisits ‘Preparatio mortis’

I wonder what a florist would think of it. If he would see how an enormous amount of beautiful flowers gets destroyed by a dancer. On the other hand: more than anyone else a florist is used to the circle of birth and death Jan Fabre is referring to in Preparatio mortis. A short version of this performance premiered in France at the Festival d’Avignon in 2005. The Belgian visual artist/choreographer/theatre director recently revisited it and presented a longer version, at deSingel (Antwerp).

It’s dark. You can’t see a thing. And then that music sets in. An organ. Majestic. Ominous. Sometimes you don’t need much to paint a picture. It stays dark for quite a while and those impressive sounds continue to fill the room. And then it looks as if something is moving on stage, as there seems to be a little more light. Is it a giant caterpillar I’m seeing? It certainly looks so. Is something rising up from what looks like a bunch of flowers? Yes indeed: an arm.

It’s a beautiful beginning. And it takes a while before you realize what it is you’re seeing: a girl covered by flowers, on some sort of big casket, that is hidden by flowers as well. When her feet touch the floor, more of the setting is unveiled. As a matter of fact she’s standing in a huge field of flowers. Slowly she starts moving: walking around, dancing, taking some of those flowers in her hands, shoving them around with her feet.

Preparatio mortis. It’s a variation on a theme anyone who’s a bit familiar with Jan Fabre’s oeuvre will know, as the Belgian artist has often stated that for him creating art means preparing for death. (He has recently unveiled that his brain will be used for a work of art after his death.) Fabre has been in a coma twice, as he was growing up. And waking up from those coma’s felt as if he was entering some sort of post-mortem state of life. Coming close to dying made coming back to life for Fabre all the more intense.

Fabre views his performances as ‘dying bodies in a transformation process, between life and death’, and Preparatio mortis fits neatly into that vision. It is unmistakably about (re)birth and death. There’s a girl waking from the death to begin with. You’ll see a see-through coffin with the date of birth of the dancer engraved in it. You’ll see butterflies, utterly fragile as they are, symbolizing artists. Cause artists too, in their quest for beauty, are really vulnerable, according to Fabre. (And: it’s impossible to nót see a dancer in black underwear as well, as Fabre is smart enough to know that a pinch of female sensuality always comes in handy. Eros and Thanatos, n’est-ce pas?)

Anyway: the main image of this performance is one that Fabre remembered from his father’s funeral: lots of flowers covering his father’s urn. Combined with that organ music by Bernard Foccroulle (it continues throughout the performance), it certainly is a powerful, central image. But I couldn’t help feeling that, whatever he tried, Fabre didn’t succeed in finding enough other elements to further develop a substantial performance out of it.
I haven’t seen the short version, so I can’t compare, but watching this long version does get a bit tedious in the end. Yes, the final image, with the girl inside that casket, making drawings, is great, but the middle part for instance, with the girl walking around, making sure she gets to every corner of that quilt of flowers, really takes too long.

You’ll find a couple of YouTube clips with excerpts from ‘Preparatio mortis’ here, here and here.

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