Imagine yourself in a cathedral. But instead of hearing Mass, you see five dancers stand in a clump, systematically moving each others’ body parts, initiating changes of weight, spins, or even backflips. Together, they form a cascading mechanical structure, like the inner workings of a clock ticking and falling into place. Imagine hearing haunting vocals sing the stories of Italian partisans during World War II.
Italian-born choreographer Alice Gosti will bring that image to life this weekend in her 5-hour-long work, How to become a partisan, to be performed Saturday, April 25, at St. Mark’s Cathedral. The piece is being presented as part of Velocity’s Made In Seattle residency program.
Gosti explained that the work is based on the Italian partisan movement and collective resistance during World War II, with the performance date aptly set for the 70th anniversary of Italy’s liberation from fascism. Throughout the five hour duration, Gosti weaves in narratives from Italian WWII political organizers, as well as her and her dancers’ reactions to those narratives. Composer Hanna Benn and a choir will also be part of the performance.
Based on the idea of “resistance,” Gosti and her dancers began developing movement scores which then became several sections in the piece. “I became really interested in the idea of ‘How did one decide to become a partisan?’ How do we move from apathy and indifference?” Gosti said. “Like everything in history, we have general ideas of ‘Oh people were unhappy with the conditions,’ but I think there’s a difference between the way history generalizes an experience as opposed to an individual’s experience.”
Back in the beginning of the project, Gosti actually hadn’t thought of partisans at all. But when she had the opportunity to travel to her native Italy and speak to those involved in the movement, Gosti sought to find out three different aspects: the partisan’s personal experiences, the role of women, and how information traveled.
At the time, Gosti said, fascists and nazis were famous for their propaganda strategies, so she began thinking of how many people at the time were almost or completely illiterate, but were also capable of self-organizing. “Even if I’m an intellectual and you’re a countryside man who doesn’t know how to read or write, how did you know that we were going to meet at this place?” Gosti said. “I was interested in pragmatics of that relationship and how it happened.”
She eventually discovered that women’s roles in the movement were as messengers. Gosti talked about women’s “power of invisibility,” which led them to contribute in ways that men couldn’t in that situation. The invisibility typically thought of as an oppressive concept could then become a powerful tool. “But of course, then history was written, and that was forgotten and put aside,” Gosti said.
Although the production team involved many people, the majority of the performers are women. Gosti said even in the rehearsal process, they talked about invisibility, physicality, and spaces that women are allowed—or not—to take.
During the five hour duration, the work will go in and out of different phases, and the audience will be allowed to roam and come and go as they wish. The length of the work, Gosti said, is a way to play with the idea of time and how it passes during a performance. The agency of the viewers, on the other hand, becomes a way to have a democracy in the audience. Gosti even told the performers that in durational performances, there may be times when they’re alone.
“You’re performing but nobody’s here, so what do you do? Do you quit or do you commit to what you’ve signed up for for yourself?” she said. “To be honest with myself, I’m still terrified. I have to keep telling myself that I made the rules so people can leave and that it’s not offensive to me or the dancers.”
Though the concept of WWII partisan resistance groups in Italy is quite specific, Gosti said she also saw parallels with the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. She realized that while she may not be able to participate in protests, creating partisan was her way of engaging in politics and moving away from apathy. It became about exploring the prescribed roles for women and the power of collective resistance.
“Once the war was over, on the streets, only men and children were celebrating. Women were already back in their old roles preparing for the celebration,” she said. “This piece, in a way, is the celebration that never happened for women and the power they had in making history.”