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Jan Fabre and Lisbeth Gruwez: Quand l’uomo principale è una Donna

A woman poised on a stool. She’s dressed in a man’s suite. Darkness covers the stage heavy. In the darkness hang twenty pieces of metal. On the ground beneath each of the pieces of metal stands a tall green bottle of olive oil.

The dancer rises and steps over the bottles, she begins to hang them up. One by one. Four of the bottles drip slowly.

The dancer walks back and forth speaking and singing. Eventually she takes off her jacket. Her small breasts are taped across the nipple. She dances gently.

She smokes a cigarette, which we taste acrid in the otherwise smoke free hall. She makes violent thrusts with her hips, impressive in scope and range. As a tigress in her cage she paces. Her presence and her physical strength impress.

She makes herself a drink, tall martini all encased in solver. A real drink. Now the smell of alcohol permeates the hall. The dancer takes a deep draught.


She lightens up, smiles, carries on her smoking. She takes off her jacket, her breasts are taped across the front. Her physique is svelete and powerful but without obvious curves.

Her masculinity she enhances by feeling her loins like a man. A metallic clink. She coyly reveals to us a silver ball that she sticks in her mouth and back in her pants.

Now some real dancing. The dancer is very fast and very agile. She rolls and tumble and falls and prances.

The music lets us down, now a pastiche of 70’s and 80’s synthetic music à la Tangerine Dream.

After ten minutes most of us have had enough. Our dancer – understandably – seems to tire.

A cute juggling act with the silver balls. First two balls easily she juggles and a third and a fourth before they fall. Her breasts are still taped down.

But wait she returns to the olive oil botles and opens them all and finally the stage is covered in oil now.

She strips off her pants and plays with the silver balls that hang in her briefs like a man’s cock and balls. Deranging now this woman with her breasts taped and a man’s groin.

Off come the pants. Off comes the tape from her breasts. Now she dances among the olive oil. The same solo but rolling now on the floor, sliding, writhing.


She glistens green under the lights, the smell of martinis downed now in a pungent aroma of olive oil. She twists, she turns, she rolls. Her nipples are enormous like small stiff corks. She does a half splits and touches herself provocatively.

She shocks even this audience, as she massages her labia in front of us. She dances and spins and slides and turns. Her bush is well-trimmed and her pussy an exciting red gash between her legs. The oil gleams off of her.

Fifteen minutes of this climax.

The dancer stands. Walks to the front of the stage. A smirk on her face. She puts a hand between her thighs and opens her legs. She holds the hand aloft and reveals the steel ball with which she has been dancing all the while.

She pops the ball in her mouth and the lights go down.


This solo for Lisbeth Gruwez reveals her talents beautifully. Reveals herself beautifully. Speed, agility, humour, singing voice, comfort with her sexuality, her amazing body.

On the other hand, I am hard-pressed, besides a personal appreciation for Lisbeth Gruwez to understand what it is I am to take away from the show. There is not a club in Vienna which has a more exciting burlesque stage show.

This is more like a visit to an extraordinary burlesque cabaret, a live sex-show as it were.

Perhaps there is value in the falling away of shame from the female body. That there is no need or reason to hid or mask the cunny. This is not a small thing in the prohibitions of our culture. Even the most daring of artists avoided showing us the rosebud. A woman celebrating her perfect physical triumph?

Or is it just provocation for effect, art porn for effetes? Perhaps Fabre is attacking dance itself – almost all dance serves as the revelation of the human body. All dance is, as it were, porn. This one is just stripped of the lofty pretensions of emotion and tantalizing discretion of costume.

I like dance for celebrating the body and for the beauty of the daughters of Terpsichore. To me the show seemed like straight provocation, exploitation of Lisbeth Gruwez and the audience, taking us to another level of dance – back to its earliest origins in earthy sexuality.

But perhaps we need to be stripped of our pretensions, to have the ballet shown for what at some level it is – striptease in tutus.

We are a long way from the aesthetic realm dance often takes us to, of archetypes of love and sacrifice and beauty.

Fabre’s provocation is more impressive in a collective piece. A single dancer can hardly carry the load. A solo runs out of itself. The layers of meaning and symbol not as rich. Having seen two solo pieces since his masterwork of last year Je suis sang, I have to say I am disappointed. Not to have seen the show – for if you are not offended by the naked and sexual female human body, you will rarely see a more pure display – but that at the end of the path, Fabre leads us holding nothing but those wild impressions.

ADDENDUM: Feminist interpretation of Quand l’uomo principale è una Donna.

I was very curious about the reaction of the two young women with whom I saw Quand l’uomo principale è una Donna, as I had my own reservations about the pornographic aspect. Their reaction shocked and disappointed me. They loved the show. But on a single condition – that the olive oil was Lisbeth Gruwez’s idea.

In this case it was celebration of the female body and liberating. If the dance were Jan Fabre’s idea, the show would be exploitation, disturbing and vile.

As a man, I find this double standard atrocious. To a female artist, all is permitted. To a male creator, strict boundaries. Some strange mirror image of the Taliban.

Photos © Wonge Bergmann

One Comment

  1. Art Warrior Art Warrior

    This performance was really outstanding, although Sung-Im Her has performed this same solo with the same passion and talent. Fabre is one of the best artists of our time.

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