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Partisan Creates Time, Space to Reflect

If you walked into Saint Mark’s Cathedral between 4 and 9 PM on Saturday, April 25, you might have seen a number of things. First, you probably would have noticed the elegantly coiffed woman towering over the pews in a dress that began white and slowly changed to red. Perhaps you witnessed the seven female dancers animalistically roving through the aisles, or grouping like a well-oiled machine where every step caused a reaction, or moving Butoh-like in a series of gestures. Maybe you heard a calamitous din of blasting organ, percussion, and brass. Or maybe when you entered you were greeted with an enveloping and generous silence. The event was Italian-American choreographer Alice Gosti’s How to become a partisan, and it commemorated the partisans, specifically the female partisans, whose sacrifices and efforts led to Italy’s liberation from Fascism during World War II. Gosti and composer Hanna Benn gave voice, movement and, most importantly, time to their stories in this five-hour durational performance.

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Composer Hanna Benn in Alice Gosti’s How to become a partisan
Photo by Tim Summers

Grandiose in scale, Partisan was unpretentious in execution. The piece engineered an exercise in the democratization of an audience, and viewers could roam throughout the space, come and go as they pleased, or even (if they had volunteered for it) partake in the opening processional into the venue. The work seemed to be structured around specific sections where the dancers entered the cathedral and moved through choreographed sequences, then exited. The musical score escalated and de-escalated throughout. Musicians and singers often paced through the space as well, and occasionally Benn added her haunting, siren-like voice to the atmosphere.


Though five hours might seem daunting, Partisan seemed to reward you the longer you stayed. And the audience was in competent hands: durational work is Gosti’s specialty, and she has been exploring the form for several years now. In 2013, she started the Yellowfish Epic Durational Performance Festival—the first of its kind—right here in Seattle. She has honed an ability to utilize time as if it were another element of the performance, like a costume or set piece to be integrated into the overall aesthetic. But, as time is inevitably continuous and other elements are finite, in order to integrate it, Gosti marks its passage through tangible means.

Composer Hanna Benn in Alice Gosti’s How to become a partisan
Photo by Liz Dawson

The means she finds are as poetic as they are numerous. The most striking in Partisan was surely the dress, worn by Benn, who stood larger than life—the dress was at least eight feet tall—benevolently overlooking the audience from the front of the cathedral. At the hem sat three blocks of red ice. As the ice melted, the water seeped slowly upward into the skirt, its color eventually transforming the stark white gown to blood red. The color progressed gradually enough that from a distance you wouldn’t have registered a change until it was nearly consumed by red: the way you might not notice the swell of an insidious force—Nazism, Fascism, racism—until it’s completely overpowering.


Other things changed color throughout the night as well, the dancers began in black jumpsuits and combat boots, and eventually stripped them away to reveal red, backless jumpsuits. They were further adorned with red triangles of paint staining their throats and black paint coloring their ring fingers on both hands—an allusion, perhaps, to both femininity and sacrifice. But the most elemental marking of time came from outside the cathedral. Over the course of the event, the day transitioned from afternoon, with sun streaming in through the vaulted windows, to dusk, to twilight, to night. This, of course, happens every day and we generally don’t mark it in any meaningful way. From inside the hushed cathedral, however, the end of the day felt significant, and was made more so by Amiya Brown’s gorgeous light design. The lamps inside stayed bright against the dark until the end, when they very slowly began to dim, and a glowing red saturated the space before giving way to black. The dancers entered again, this time with flashlights they occasionally scanned across the room—searching, or sending signals through the dark.


Much of the work’s strength came from its open-ended symbolism. The themes were potent—the many manifestations of femininity, the brutality of war, and an underlying sense of humanity—but the images were never overly dictative. Like all good art, it invited viewers to bring their own experiences to what they saw. The work’s format created a profoundly different sensation from sitting in a theater. Perhaps it’s because cathedrals, and Saint Marks in particular, are awe-inspiring places designed to cultivate a state of reflection, but Partisan seemed to gift the audience with time, instead of taking time out of one’s evening. It intentionally gave viewers the time to reflect on what they saw, mull over ideas, and find new viewpoints.


Alice Gosti's How to become a partisan Photo by Sebastien Scandiuzzi
Alice Gosti’s How to become a partisan
Photo by Sebastien Scandiuzzi

While time played a huge role, at the heart of the work was Gosti’s central question: “what does it take for us to take action?” How does one become a partisan? She arrived at this notion when she interviewed female Italian partisans, but it finds broad relevance in today’s social climate as well. Movements like Black Lives Matter, the fight for marriage equality, or even Occupy Wall Street’s goals of leveling income inequality, all stem from people taking action against an injustice.


By building audience freedom into Partisan, Gosti gave us the ability to take action or not, and to ponder the question on different levels. At one point when the music became overwhelmingly loud and cacophonous, it felt almost unbearable. The dancing turned chaotic, too. People who had been sitting in the audience suddenly ricocheted through the space, jumping wildly and egging each other on. It was a section called Mosh (created by Shannon Stewart and Rosa Vissers), but in tandem with the noise, it served as an apt metaphor for the threshold of tolerance. What does unbearable look like to you, and how do you handle it when you reach that point? And in the vein of audience democratization, it also brought to mind how we choose to consume art. Do you let it wash over you and simply absorb it? Do you leave if it gets uncomfortable? What constitutes discomfort certainly looks different for different people, but in the quiet that finally washed over the space afterwards, I was left questioning my own gut response.


The dancing too, was more than notable. The seven performers—Noelle Chun, Alyza DelPan-Monley, Brittani Karhoff, Lorraine Lau, Kaitlin McCarthy, Colleen McNeary, and Leigh Sugar—showed intense commitment throughout the work, a feat of endurance in and of itself. All talented artists in their own right, they breathed life into Gosti’s choreography by performing with ferocity, precision, and sincerity. In a memorable sequence they alternated between a reverential phrase where they seemed to press themselves into the air in front of them, and a passage where they moved in slow-motion down the aisles, flexing and snarling as if charging into battle. Their devotion to the work was palpable, and their capability to alternate between tender and savage reflected the many facets of real women.


Partisan is the type of performance that stays with you. Hypnotic, meditative, and profoundly beautiful, it left you with a certain sense of calm despite the heavy issues at its core. The work’s essential humanity also made you realize that big social movements start with human voices. Individual stories lay the foundation for the larger mechanics of history, and even the ones that happened 75 years ago deserve to be told. Seattle is lucky to have Gosti helping us find space to reflect on these stories of the past, a task that feels equally important as the creation of our own narratives. With Partisan, Gosti gave us the time to pause and commemorate the past, while reminding us to stay engaged with the present.


More information about Gosti and her work can be found on her website. How to become a Partisan was commissioned by Velocity Dance Center’s Made in Seattle Program. To learn more about Velocity and their programs, see here.