Review: Claire Cunningham & Jess Curtis - The Way You Look (at me) Tonight- Royal Festival Hall

Performance: 6 & 7 September 2016
Reviewed by Josephine Leask - Thursday 8 September 2016

Claire Cunningham & Jess Curtis - 'The Way You Look (at me) Tonight'. Photo: Bettina Strenske.

Performance reviewed: 7 September

The Way You Look (at me) Tonight is a thought-provoking, sensory journey created and performed by choreographer/performance artists Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis which gently meanders through the audience, using our bodies as well as their own as they move. As part of the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited season celebrating work made by disabled artists, Cunningham once again creates an intimate performance environment with tis ‘social sculpture’ and coaxes us to question issues around disability, identity and otherness, up close. The Way You Look… is all about revealing process, like a lecture demonstration but the tone of the two collaborators is casual and unforced. They ask each other many questions as they move and dance in a continual dialogue and as the writer and philosopher Alva Noe remarks in a video shot, this is what the great philosopher Socrates did, rather than just lecture to his listeners.

Commissioned for the vast Royal Festival Hall, Cunningham and Curtis choose to enact The Way You Look… on part of the concert hall’s stage, with the audience gathered around, sitting on cushions or chairs. It’s a suitably disorientating context for the work which pushes us out of our comfort zone, making us all active participants: the intimacy of bodily contact as the performers touch or surf on audience members, the shared confessions of both about their identity and social interactions, as well as occasional contributions from audience members.

Cunningham and Curtis disrupt the traditional, linear performance, turn it inside out making it messy, interactive and philosophical, focusing on gaps and absences both in movement and text, aided by a triptych of screens on which there is a continuous interplay of texts, images, videos. In this deconstructed environment, there are no solutions, no rights or wrongs, only other possibilities and other ways of thinking about life and death. This is where the interesting choreography takes place, Noe assures us. And he’s right.

In this manner of ‘reflective self-awareness’ the pair discuss the limitations and frustrations of their bodies. Curtis talks about the arthritis in his left hip and how he dances on the edge of pain, frustrated as a guru of contact improvisation with the aging process but laughs about being asymmetrical. Adopting crutches he asks Cunningham to teach him her incredible crutch technique, which she demonstrates – a swivel, a balance, press-ups and a swoosh through. She is mistress of her crutch craft but he struggles with it, as most non-crutch users do.

Cunningham chats about how as a disabled woman on crutches she has always felt sexually neutralised and unwomanly, a common theme amongst the disabled community, and questions how crutches are perceived by society at large to remove sexuality. What is intriguing is her revelation that she feels bonded and coupled with her crutches, positively viewing them as helpful, supportive and creative extensions of her body. She concludes that possibly her ‘asexuality’ is like another form of ‘queerness’ as it is certainly rejected by a conventional heterosexual matrix. It makes sense and towards the end of the show, Curtis and Cunningham’s friendly, warm unpretentious discussion makes everyone, whatever their identity, or their dis/abilities feel welcome and included.

It’s an intense evening but one that celebrates bodily diversity and inherently makes the media and mainstream society with its preoccupations about beauty and perfection seem toxic and exclusive.

As well as sections of contact improvisation on the floor and solos by each performer, there’s rousing yet flowing music by Matthias Herrmann which dilutes the spoken word and a moving folk ballad sung by Cunningham as she sits atop a ladder. Such moments allow for quieter moment of self-reflection in an otherwise busy show.

An arresting final section sees the couple dance ‘cheek to cheek’ – Cunningham, precariously perched high on one crutch with her arms round Curtis’s neck – to Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ The Way You Look Tonight, concludes the evening with some thoughts about love. A love that is about access, acceptance and enquiry.

Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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