An Austrian choreographer, an American playwright, and a Dutch composer have collaborated with scientists to shed light on various dimensions of the ecological crisis in artistic ways. On 6 October 2023 at 20:00 CET, they will present some of their work in an engaging program titled “What We Want” at the MuTh, one of Vienna’s well-known concert halls.

How do NASA data on the climate crisis transform into music? How do you narrate the development of our planet and its inhabitants on stage? How does a scientific publication on demographic changes become a theater play?

The evening’s innovative performance will open with the composition Four Drifting Seasons by award-winning Dutch composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven, known for working with some of the world’s leading music ensembles, such as the Kronos Quartet and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as for his work on conflict resolution in the Middle East and the climate crisis. His Four Drifting Seasons composition is based on temperature rise data from 1880 to the present obtained from NASA. Twaalfhoven previously explained his inspiration for the piece as wanting audiences to be able to hear and feel what 1.5°C means beyond just the abstract number they are usually confronted with. The piece premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2017, where a children’s choir sang it. The Vienna version will be tailored to an opera singer.

Her performance will be followed by a multimedia dance piece titled “Breath” by the Austrian choreographer Gloria Benedikt and scientists from Harvard University and IIASA. The work depicts a journey through time, starting from cyanobacteria that accidentally produced oxygen two and a half billion years ago, ultimately enabling life on planet Earth, to the present day, where the human species is slowly but consistently depriving itself of air to breathe and then perhaps, albeit belatedly, changing course. The piece premiered at the European Forum Alpbach in 2021. It was further developed and performed in Paris at the Institut Pasteur (2022) and the Institut de France (2023). Benedikt, a graduate of the Vienna State Opera’s Ballet Academy and of Harvard University, who has performed internationally for two decades, also led the former Science and Art project at IIASA. She has directed over a dozen multimedia performances at theatres, universities, festivals, and conferences across Europe and the US.

The evening’s artistic program will conclude with the premiere of the theater play titled “Piece of Cake”. It was developed in 2019 as part of the IIASA Science and Art project by playwright and co-director of the pioneering Brooklyn-based Superhero Clubhouse eco-theater, Lanxing Fu, and Fabian Wagner, an IIASA climate scientist.

“Climate change is just one of the wicked problems we are facing – problems that are so complex that they cannot be resolved. We are still trying to understand how our way of life deeply affects generations to come. Much of what we find out has not only logos but also pathos and does not fit into academic papers. But the theatre can say it, can show it, can make you feel and understand it,” explains Wagner.

In the play, past, present, and future exist in one space as four generations of a family spanning 1950 to 2050, gather around a table to share an absurd, abundant, limitless feast. The story traverses a century of humans’ changing relationship to resources and shifting ideas of what it means to have children.

Having been postponed due to the pandemic, this performance represents the piece’s premiere, which will be in German (with English subtitles).  Both Breath and Piece of Cake strive to counter narratives of futility through stories of resilience, innovation, and interconnection. The program will include and encourage discussions with the audience throughout the evening.

“A common assumption I have encountered holds that artists and performing arts institutions can only contribute to the sustainability transformation by reducing the CO2 emissions of theater productions, travel, and making theaters and opera houses energy efficient. But if backed by institutions, artists could do so much more. They could tell stories about the future, inspire tangible hope, grapple with ethical dilemmas arising from the climate crisis, and thus contribute to cultural shifts,” notes Benedikt. “With this program, we would like to show how vital it would be to also have theaters as a public space where artists and audiences can engage with the future,” she concludes.

Further information

MuTh Concert Hall


Breath -Trailer


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