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Concrete utopia

Part of the Invisible Diaries series

Week 12 / Day 1


I have been very much enjoying reading these diaries the past months, both for how they eloquently mirrored some of my own experiences and thoughts and for the polyphonic diversity of their voices from different geopolitical, cultural and generational backgrounds. The latter made me realize that we are all in this together but each in our own unique way.

Sometimes I was able to read the diaries on a daily basis, but often I read them at the end of the week in one single session. It reminded me of a guest lecture I attended as a student from the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. How he told us to read the whole body of work of a poet as ‘one single text’ and to see what recurrent themes, images and stylistic characteristics would emerge or be heightened by their repetition and variation. Reading the reflections of my colleagues over a period of a whole week, allowed me to get to know them personally: what occupies them; how they (re-)organized and balanced their work and private life, which is always a tight-rope balancing act, also in so-called normal times; their language preferences for metaphor, factual description or lists…

Since we were invited by the series curator well in advance, and knowing that I would be the last in the series, I also put some unnecessary pressure on myself, questioning what I would be able to add to everything that is already said, especially at a moment in time that some of the most visible effects of the Covid-19 lockdown are slowly dissolving, at least in Vienna, where I live and where everything has reopened; wearing masks only remains obligatory in public transport and health care environments; rehearsals are again allowed, and the first public events and performances, mainly outdoors, have been scheduled again for the summer months.

I had to fight with myself not to write out too many thoughts in advance in order to remain in the present of a diary, but I also felt a desire to use this week’s diary to reflect back on the whole past three months, which started with me returning from the International Choreographers Week in Tilburg, a project I have been mentoring since its first edition on Friday, March 13th (I am not superstitious and if anything, I have always considered 13 more a lucky number) and going into lockdown, with Stephanie my wife returning on the 14th from performing in Philadelphia on one of the last regular flights from the US after Trump’s decision to close the borders for Europeans and with Julian, my 2 ½-year-old son, who was travelling with me after a visit to his Belgian uncle and aunt.

Usually, this is the busiest period of my professional calendar and it always involves a lot of travelling. I calculated of the 101 days I have been home now (and I have never been home for so long in the past 10 years), I was supposed to be 77 days abroad in amongst others Halifax, Montréal, Ottawa, Dublin, Brussels, Athens, Venice, Anghiari, Rotterdam…, and the one full week I would have been at home, Stephanie would have been on tour, which would have meant we would have been together as a family for less than 14 days. I might come back later in the week on the absurdity of this ‘nomadic’ existence, which is rather the rule than the exception in the contemporary dance field, which has been my main professional field for the past 30 years.

I like to keep old-fashioned, hand-written agendas since they keep more visible also what has been erased.

I also feel a need to dialogue with some of the entries my colleagues posted earlier, and which inspired me and supported me in my own thoughts and emotions, triggered by this ‘state of emergency’. For instance, I enjoyed Bernadette Cochrane’s reflection on how these diaries are also a way of dramaturgical self-fashioning. So, even when I resisted to write too much in advance, I did plan and organize this week in such a way as to have interesting experiences and topics to write about, hopefully also with a couple of unforeseen surprises.

Earlier today, I had an online meeting with the students of COMMA, the joint MA in choreography of CODARTS in Rotterdam and Fontys in Tilburg to discuss with them how the actual situation affects their creative practice and their artistic research. Some of the questions they had: How to avoid too many projections about the future and stay and deal with the issues of the here and now? How to relate to audiences when we are allowed back to perform? How to connect our personal research questions and interests with what happens in the world without artificially forcing it? How to let go of things? What place to give grieving those losses?

I also got very inspired by Katalin Trencsényi’s decision to use as a title for each diary entry a quote by a colleague. I decided to do something similar, dedicating each of these entries to someone whom I consider an influential ‘teacher’, even if they would not always call themselves that.

To conclude, I’d like to dedicate this first entry to one of my university teachers, the Flemish philosopher Ludo Abicht, who was himself a student of the German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Bloch, who criticized forms of ‘abstract’ utopian thinking, that deny reality and imply the danger of becoming totalitarian. Bloch proposed the concept of concrete utopia, which in my simplified understanding of it, is how you try to change reality ‘step by step’ in the direction of your ideals, but also allow your ideals to change under influence of the new urgencies of reality in order for the two to meet eventually in a place that remains unknown.

This period, an enormous amount of ‘discourse’ has been produced about how this Covid-19 crisis (together with many other movements accompanying it such as Climate Change, Black Lives Matters, MeToo – to name but the ones that remain most urgent) implies the need of more fundamental changes to the way, we have organized ourselves as humanity: politically, economically and also culturally. I am also a firm believer in the need of such a paradigm shift and I will explore in the next days some of the aspects this implies for my own field, the performing arts. But remembering Abicht’s teaching of Bloch, I think it needs to happen ‘step by step’, even with an accelerated urgency, in the ‘minor gestures’, we make ourselves before it will lead to the necessary structural, economical, and political changes since the latter will unfortunately always defend the status quo. In the following days, I will continue to reflect on some of these ‘minor gestures’, I am able to make myself and this diary will also function as a reminder not to forget them too soon. Maybe less travelling will be one of them.


Guy Cools is a Belgian dance dramaturg, currently living in Vienna. He has worked as a dance critic and dance curator. He curated from 1990 till 2002, the dance program of Arts Centre Vooruit in Ghent, Belgium. As a production dramaturg, he worked amongst others with Jean Abreu (UK), Koen Augustijnen (BE), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (BE), Danièle Desnoyers (CA), Alexander Gottfarb (AT), Lia Haraki (CY), Akram Khan (UK), Joshua Monten (SUI), Arno Schuitemaker (NL) and Stephanie Thiersch (DE).

As a dramaturgical mentor, he has been mentoring Anghiari Dance Hub, the International Choreographer’s Week in Tilburg, the project Danse et Dramaturgie in Switzerland; the Biennale Dance College in Venice and the Atlas program of Impulstanz in Vienna. He lectures and teaches at different universities and arts colleges in Europe and Canada.

His most recent publications include The Ethics of Art: ecological turns in the performing arts, co-edited with Pascal Gielen (2014); In-between Dance Cultures: on the migratory artistic identity of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan (2015); Imaginative Bodies, dialogues in performance practices (2016) and The Choreopolitics of Alain Platel’s les ballets C de la B, co-edited with Christel Stalpaert and Hildegard De Vuyst (2019). With the Canadian choreographer, Lin Snelling, he developed an improvised performance practice Rewriting Distance that focuses on the integration of movement, voice, and writing.

He is currently using the time-out of travelling, working at home on his next book, Performing Mourning, Laments in Contemporary Art.

Photography by Pawel Wyszomirski.

Image is courtesy of the author.

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