If you've walked by Waterfront Park in the last month or so, you may have seen a woman holding a megaphone and instructing a group of eight dancers to pretend they're swimming through caramel. That woman is (probably) choreographer/dancer Alice Gosti, and you were probably watching rehearsals for Bodies of Water, a brand-new five-hour drop-in durational performance brought to you by Velocity Dance Center and Friends of Waterfront Seattle.
Eight dancers compose the core of the piece. At 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 16, those dancers will begin at one end of the park and then course around the half-moon section of the pier, and by 10:00 p.m. they'll end up on the opposite side of the park. The piece will begin with the city skyline in the background and end with Puget Sound as the background—a journey from the city to the water.
At some point, under the direction of Benjamin Marx (Degenerate Art Ensemble), a marching band will amble through the park. Ambient water noises will be amplified. The Beaconettes, a humorous a cappella ensemble composed of women of a certain age, will don their vertiginous pink wigs and perform a number from their repertoire. Gosti will recite poetry by the radical Romantic Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. And, of course, the sun will bow out behind the Olympics.
"Then there's going to be a good-bye," Gosti explains, as she polishes off the last of her gin and tonic at Redwood.
"A good-bye?" I ask. "You mean they're just gonna wave at us?"
"I haven't decided yet," she says. "I don't know if the end will be an arrival or a departure."
Gosti won't tell me when the Beaconettes are going to come on. Or when the poetry is supposed to happen. She won't tell me any of this stuff because Bodies of Water is a durational performance, so lots of the piece's pleasure lies in little surprises she and her collaborators have built into the five-hour period of time. The hope is that those surprises, in addition to the movement of the core dancers, will satisfy the audience sufficiently, with respect, of course, to how much time they have for art that day.
Gosti tells me she wants her time-based spectacles to feel like "a choose your own adventure" book, not a slog. Wanna watch from one of those pods on the Seattle Great Wheel? Do it. Wanna stop by at 5 p.m., watch for 10 minutes, shuffle over to JarrBar for some octopus snacks, return to the park and watch for another 20, run off again for a light dinner, and then catch Gosti's "good-bye?" The durational performance is your oyster.
"The idea is that I've given you this container" says Gosti. "You don't have to take it all. You can even go to sleep if you like."
But isn't durational art a thing to be endured? "Some people believe that durational performance is only endurance. I don't agree," Gosti says. "Endurance limits it to a concept of pain and suffering. That's one power of durational performance, but you can do something for a long time and not have pain, and not subjugate yourself to some kind of emotional and physical distress. You can do something for a long time because a story needs to be told for a long time."
The story Gosti is trying to tell with Bodies of Water does sound like it needs five hours. She's pitching the piece as a celebration of Seattle that also accounts, in some way, for "the problematic relationship that Seattle has to its water."
As part of her research, she's interviewed UW lecturer Cynthia Updegrave about the dismantling of water-based Native American cultures and Native fishing rights to Elliott Bay and the Duwamish River, she's read up on water ecology in general, and has also been keeping up with news about the global refugee crisis. All of these issues, Gosti says, feed into the piece.
Huh? "There are triangulations where these elements come together," she says. She then describes the complicated problem involving cleanup and fishing in the Duwamish River. Somalian, Mexican, and East Asian immigrants who come from fishing cultures and who see perch fishing and crab nabbin' from the Duwamish as a way to secure cheap protein for their families are at risk of getting sick from eating the river's polluted bounty. But the city has a hard time figuring out how best to communicate with those communities, and there are still questions about how involved those communities will be in river cleanup efforts.
At the moment, Bodies of Water doesn't seem to be making a direct argument about how the city should address these issues, but that's not the point. "Of course I have opinions about whether certain water policies are good or bad—but that's not how I make my work," Gosti says. "My work isn't a manifesto of my opinions; my work is more about not forgetting certain stories." She says the conflicts concerning Native fishing rights, for instance, "aren't [her] battle to fight," but that she felt as if it would be ignorant of her not to include references to them in a show about Seattle's waterways.
Why celebrate Seattle in this way in the first place? Isn't this a hopeless city lousy with fully optimized, culturally inert tech bros whose only mission is to leave Solowheel tracks all over everything beautiful?
"I'm sure I'm going to get shit for this one," she says. "But... Italy would be much worse." Gosti was born and raised in Italy, and she says she couldn't do any of the projects she does here back in her hometown. Her knack for crowdfunding campaigns allows her to produce projects like Bodies, to sustain Yellow Fish (her annual durational performance festival), and to tour nationally and internationally with her shows.
"You want to make a festival?" she asks. "You can make it. You want to make a political performance spectacle? You can make it. You want to make a dance about nothing? You can do that, too. The economy is alive here, so there's possibility. I know there are a lot of problems, but to me it's still so much better than Italy."