This text, “Breathing,” was conceived for the book From Act to Acting: Fabre’s Guidelines for the Performer of the 21st Century (2021). The book was conceived and designed by Jan Fabre, author, theatre artist, and visual artist, active since the 1970s. The book was written by Luk Van den Dries, dramaturg and theatre researcher of the University of Antwerp, in tight collaboration with Jan Fabre and the three most important performers/teachers of the Belgian theatre company, Troubleyn (Annabelle Chambon, Cédric Charron, and Ivana Jozič). The book sheds new light on the physical, mental, and vocal training of the performer and furthermore gives insight into Fabre’s revolutionary thoughts on contemporary theatre.1The book was launched in 2021 by several editing houses in Italy, Bulgaria, Russia, Spain, Serbia, and Lithuania.
Breathing is the first of the ten performative principles that together create the basic grammar in which the language of the performers is grounded.
Three-phased breathing (one part in, one part out, one part nothing) is a basic condition in the series of exercises Jan Fabre developed throughout his career. This respiration technique returns in all exercises. Also, it is the first principle that the performers are taught: by dividing breathing into three equal parts, energy is built up and stress or fatigue is canalized. It is a way to rebalance, to find a place of rest after a strenuous effort, or it can also be used as a springboard to a heightened performance. Very regularly during individual exercises, Fabre will refer to this respiration technique, especially in specific situations of high adrenaline, but of course the performers should learn to use this respiration technique autonomously. They should become so familiar with the rhythm of this breathing that they automatically fall back on it when necessary. Because this respiration technique is so crucial to Fabre’s acting pedagogy, it is described in detail as the very first exercise in his book. Its basic principles are explained below as well, as the first performative principle.
Breathing is a sign of life, and on this primal and essential level it needs to be understood that, through breathing, the performer gives life. He breathes life into the performance. Fabre himself has described this basic condition for the birth of theatre through breathing very precisely:
The most important weapon of the warrior of beauty is his respiration. When the performance starts, life stops. Life itself dies. The warrior of beauty is alive, but life itself is dead. The warrior of beauty remains with just his own breath. When he enters the stage, he needs to breathe life into deceased life. Like a god gives his breath to create life. In the same way he will create life with his breath. How will he achieve this? By breathing correctly: one-third inhaling through the nostrils, one-third exhaling through pursed lips, one-third without breathing. And then the miracle happens. The breath becomes imagination and the imagination breathes. The warrior of beauty is the master of breath and life.2Jan Fabre, Giornali Notturno IV 1999-2002, Cronopios: Napoli, 2021 (my translation).
Fabre’s abdominal breathing differs from regular forms of breathing, such as techniques derived from Asian yoga techniques, Chi-kung or Tai-chi, as it stresses different parts. At the same time, it is closely related to it, because these practices also adopt the notion that breathing in the first place rouses vitality and spirit and that the right kind of breathing thus aims at controlling life currents and bringing about a clear mind. In yoga it is called pranayama: prana meaning spirit or force of life, ayama meaning ‘control’ or ‘grasp.’ Yoga knows many variants in directing the breath, depending on the asanas (yoga postures) in which they are bedded. Sometimes focusing mainly on the diaphragm and the flanks, sometimes on abdominal breathing. Also, suspending your breath (kumbhaka) is a yoga technique, applied at the end of inhalation as well as after exhalation and during taking breath.
In Fabre’s case, abdominal breathing is stressed: first, air is inhaled through the nose, subsequently sent in the direction of the peritoneal cavity and the flanks, and then again exhaled via a very precise blowing technique (a dosed flow of air through an imaginary straw). During the cycle the diaphragm remains as stable as possible. In the third part of the cycle, emptiness is felt and embraced. In his own words, Fabre claims he made the technique his own after a doctor helped him control attacks of hyperventilation.
This process is, first and foremost, about gaining control over the displacement of air. It is an essential, internal process. The performer becomes aware of each step along the way between nose, trachea, peritoneal cavity, and lungs. For that reason, the trachea can be considered the performer’s most important channel. After all, it transports oxygen to the lungs and transports carbon dioxide back out. This is already a form of natural transformation, a metabolic process that takes place inside the body, essential for the preservation of life. Besides metabolism, a fluctuation of temperature occurs inside the body. Cold air is heated via the nose, the oral cavity, and the trachea before it is distributed by the lungs. The air is not only heated when inhaled, it is humidified as well via the mucous, humid, warmer, and has converted into energy. The void has been filled with new potential and will convert into the very power of imagination.
In this light, the performer is, first and foremost, a sculptor. He sculpts himself. Breathing is the most basic, but also the most fundamental, part of this self-creation. It is where the energetic tissue is formed and where the internal transformation process unfolds. The performer sculpts energy, he adds mass, or trims it, to create a new energetic being. In that way, the performer’s visible, material body makes way for the invisible body that will form out of the void and the inhaled and exhaled air in a new guise: the performer’s energetic manifestation, which is fluid as it constantly changes shape, because it is always caught in a transformative cycle: inhaling, exhaling, permitting emptiness.
This specific form of abdominal breathing also ensures that the amount of oxygen inhaled is kept to a minimum. Indeed, breathing too quickly, or emphasizing it too much, can lead to hyperventilation, cramps, or dizziness. Abdominal breathing is designed to bundle energy in the cavity of the belly, all the while taking care not to overload the body, but to keep it in a state of relaxed alertness or to calm down after a strenuous effort. So, breathing is a form of constant self-control in which the body’s energy level is kept in balance. Thus, it is a form of homeostasis balancing the organism. The heartbeat is restrained, stress factors are kept in check. It improves concentration and endurance.