Photo by Lluvia Moreno

There’s an empty bathtub. A chalkboard. Dissonant chords whir and dancers sway like seaweed drowning in the ocean. The music picks up and up. Dancers shout to each other with ever-increasing desperation.

“Carved.” “Cooled.” “Denied.” The words ripple and explode over each other like bubbles reaching the surface of the water. “Crumbling.” “Divulged.” The keyboard softens. The dancers’ energy decrescendos. 

Twenty-six years of artistic experimentation and performance culminate in Random with a Purpose’s (RWAP) newest production, “Via.” From Feb. 15-17 and 21-24, dancers in tandem with musicians will improvise on the UC Santa Cruz theater department’s Second Stage.

“Via” is a production of firsts. This year’s show features music composed by RWAP’s first ever musical director Kumi Maxson and marks the first time a live band shares the stage with dancers. RWAP emphasizes improvisation across the performances. Each performance is a snapshot of artistic collision. 

“There’s this energy that you can feel just bouncing off all the surfaces and bodies, and the same thing with the audience,” said director Kat Brault, a fourth-year RWAP dancer and choreographer. “You feel their  energy.”

All performers start with predetermined phrases of music and movement to support each other throughout the pieces. They’ve spent the last two months collaborating in mini-ensembles, each focusing its energy on a different component of the piece. Performers capture spontaneity and build off each other’s energy to navigate their collaborative journey.

“My performance practice is […] completely improvisatory,” Maxson said. “I’m in the space with them, creating sounds for their choreography but I’m not actually creating the music for the piece until we’re  performing.”

In “Via,” works mutate with every performance. The tiniest alteration — including who is in the room, dancing or otherwise — causes a perceptible ripple of change in the dance. The audience members are somewhere between passive and active participants in the performance.

Sienna Ballou created “Fissured,” her first choreography to be featured in  RWAP. The literature graduate student’s piece is one of 12 dances comprising the two hour show. Her work explores the dynamic between the metaphorical and physical meaning of skin and how each informs humans’ understanding of the other. 

“You’re born with this flesh that you have, but also this identity that we create for ourselves that is very largely tied into our material body and our material flesh,” Ballou said. “Our flesh is made up of more than just our material  skin.”

Ballou combines words, objects — the dancers call them “artifacts” — music and dance, superimposing meanings to create a new, artistic  event. 

Throughout “Fissured,” dancers take turns at a chalkboard, layering over each other’s scribbles. The music tosses them to all corners of the stage as they whisper, scream and mutter passages cited from James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” and Giovanni Singleton’s “Caged Bird,” among others.

Ballou’s piece urges spectators to pay attention to the mechanism of language outside of a traditional literary  setting.

“Our society is very fixated on words being the truth,” Ballou said. “But we, our bodies and our sensations are also facts. When we can think of words as being synonymous with sensation then it keeps words from taking over us and our identities.”

“Via” is the multimedia result of an interdisciplinary, interinstitutional and intertrade collaborative effort.

With so many interacting variables, the untrained eye fears the unraveling of the whole process. The knife-edge between order and disarray titillates viewers and performers alike. Ideas, perspectives, sounds and movements are all balanced, blended together to make a cohesive whole.

Student organized, run, created and performed, RWAP shows exemplify the full extent of UCSC talent. Given the space to collaborate and create without constraints, members created not only an innovative space they can be proud of, but a spectacle we can all participate in –– even from the audience. 

“Everyone comes from such different training but now in this space […] we have a collective goal,” said musical director Kumi Maxson. “We’re all here to create that one thing. Everyone’s perspective is equally valid and [they] don’t cancel each other out in any way.”