Photos courtesy of Steve DiBartolomeo.
Photos courtesy of Steve DiBartolomeo.

Her breathing became more labored, raspy and desperate before stopping. The audience was transfixed as Ramona Parrotta depicted death in UC Santa Cruz professor Gerald Casel’s experimental movement theater show, “Give.” When Parrotta’s breath stopped, two other dancers closed her eyes and moved her body offstage. As they laid Parrotta over the laps of two audience members, they said, “Just be with the body.”

“Give” ran from May 13-15 and 19-22 at UCSC’s Mainstage Theater. When the theater department asked Casel for a rough sketch of the show at the beginning of the school year, he wasn’t able to provide concrete details but had the name “Give” ready.

“There’s this idea of generosity and generating material and being available to the process,” Casel said about the name. “But also it’s a physical thing of when there’s pressure applied to a piece of fabric for a while, it gives because of the flexibility. And I’m using that as a metaphor for how we use the body, the objectified body.”

In his research, Casel explores how choreography is a colonizing force, affecting both the body and the pedagogy of dance. Dance is traditionally taught with European and American styles in mind, and dances are only deemed “good” if they follow those traditions. Dancers’ bodies are tools to enact choreographers’ visions. Casel wanted “Give” to resist these colonizations.

“I’m trying to unpack and pick apart how choreography is usually taught in university,” Casel said. “If I teach you movement and you imitate it to copy me, then you are relinquishing control or agency of your own [body].”

Casel seldom showed the dancers how to move on the stage. Instead, he would give them improvisational tasks, like turning maps into movement, creating dances out of chalk drawing squiggles and using free writing as a basis for motion. After going through these tasks, Casel and the cast would decide what dances to keep in the show, and each night certain parts of the show were improvised.

“If I start moving, I just try to carry it on and I don’t stop,” performer Juliet Paramor said. “And I find that that’s how I can be the most honest with my movement, through doing what my body wants to do naturally.”

The dances weren’t the only improvisational element to the show. Each night, music director Tim Russell would compose the music live as he watched the dancers. Working with four speakers linked to his computer and two phonographs, Russell created a new mood for every show.

“When we think traditionally of how you view [dance],” Russell said, “you want to see this correlation between sound and motion and things line up in a way that’s like, ‘Oh, I understand how they correlate with each other.’ … I try to make music that supports dance without telling it what to do.”

The show included pieces like Ramona Parrotta’s, in which there is a distinct narrative, as well as more abstract pieces where dancers would move each other’s bodies or drag each other across the stage.

Cast members used a live feed camera to shoot other performers giving spoken word pieces. The audience saw the poets live on a giant screen overlooking the stage. Meanwhile, other cast members moved to evoke the sentiment of the spoken word.

“It was a place to experiment and a place to try,” said theater major and “Give” performer Indigo Jackson. “And we would harvest from those experimentations. And it became something real and concrete. [The show] was just a process of really getting into my body and discovering what my body can do. I hope there’s a bit of that as well for those that are viewing it.”

With the show’s improvisational and contemporary nature, viewers were unsure of what to make of it.

“I was trying to interpret, but it was very difficult,” said UCSC fourth-year Kurt Lindquist, his eyebrows furrowing as he expressed his opinion. “I was questioning what was going on with the records, the screens, the videos. It made me think, that’s for sure.”

But for Casel and the cast, the show was less about the audience making sense of the show and more about the audience engaging with it.

“I don’t think one of my goals is for them to follow [the show],” Casel said. “I want them to have an experience of their own. Again, I’m trying to not impose meaning or even enforce a theme because I think there are so many stories going on when you watch this show.”