Researchers and artists issue ‘A Call for Hope’ in times of crisis in on-stage performance

How do sustainability researchers process feelings of anxiety and powerlessness around climate breakdown, ongoing conflict, polarising politics and other seemingly insurmountable crises? “Lately, I’ve been feeling that the people around me - myself included - might need reminding not to lose hope and each other when what is going on in the world seems impossible to solve,” says Iris Mathar, a junior lecturer at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. Mathar recently created a performing and visual arts performance around the theme of hope in times of crisis.

Collaborations between the arts and sciences are argued to be becoming increasingly important, with the understanding that inviting in emotions, empathy and multiple perspectives are required to confront the huge challenges of our time.

“A Call for Hope” was performed at the Copernicus Open Podium in May 2024, a popular creative outlet hosted annually by and for researchers from the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. The performance project brought together 12 scientists from the Copernicus Institute with 15 performing artists in an impressive 15-minute production of 10 scenes combining dance, poetry, live music and film.

From dystopia to hope

The first part of the show portrayed an absurdist technocratic dystopian future in urgent need of hope, love and care. Figures glued to their mobile phone screens moved around in a disconnected manner, while a voice urged them to leave the destroyed planet Earth and take the last train to the next interplanetary station. Freestyle dancers accompanied by a violinist embodied a heavy feeling in response to this dystopian imagery.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that the people around me - myself included - might need reminding not to lose hope, and lose each other, when what is going on in the world seems impossible to solve

A contemporary dancer wearing a shirt emblazoned with ‘HOPE’ changed the course of the show. Giving words to interpret the heavy storyline, a poet explored the destructive nature of our system and how the poet leans towards the green to heal. The Copernicus dancers started in a meeting setting by doing ‘office moves’ after which they broke their automatic pilot mode through dance. 

The second part of the show portrayed elements that can be associated with a more desirable, positive future, conveying a message of hope, human connection, joy, empowerment, and grounding through feminine- and African dance. The show ended with a “Power to the people’’ message, conveyed through a very grounded and powerful African dance.

Weekly dance get-togethers

“To prepare our 12 colleagues for my wild ideas, I organized weekly dance classes at the office,” explains Mathar. “In a playful manner we switched off our intellect for a second and explored how we could use our bodies to make sense of all the difficult things going on in the world at the moment”. 

Mathar wanted to take away any social pressure from the sessions and find a new kind of community amongst colleagues. “I think this process showed that it is so much fun to connect, get out of our offices, and dance”. She is also a firm believer that this kind of creative sense-making works wonders for being able to focus on teaching, reading and writing. “I look forward to continue engaging with this kind of energy in our institute in the future,” she says.