Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight

Posted: October 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight, Tramway, September 16

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis in The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight (photo: Sven Hagolani)

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis in The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight (photo: Sven Hagolani)

You will walk differently alone, dear, through a thicker atmosphere, forcing your way through the shadows of chairs, through the dripping smoke of the funnels. You will feel your own reflection sliding along the eyes of those who look at you. You are no longer insulated; but I suppose you must touch life in order to spring from it.” – F Scott Fitzgerald

It was Jess Curtis who introduced Claire Cunningham to contact improvisation and in The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight we see their invisible histories fizzing across 90 minutes of physical trust and emotional exchange as they build and share with the audience a rare magic that is not only a choreography of bodies, crutches and people but a symphony of intimacy, tenderness and generosity.

Cunningham and Curtis offer a directors’ note: ‘The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight is a social sculpture — a sensory journey for two performers and audience. Dancing, singing, telling stories…and asking important questions about our habits and practices of perceiving each other and the world.’ We are welcomed with a quality of eye contact by both performers and invited to sit either on one of the chairs or cushions on the stage (‘where we may come into physical contact with the performers’) or in the seating bank. I choose a small cushion, centre stage, from where I can see the entire journey unfold.

Cunningham and Curtis walk and weave in and out of the bodies on stage demonstrating an ease and familiarity with each other whilst sharing encounters of how people have looked at them in the past. Cunningham cites Bill Shannon’s (aka Crutch Master) theory of peripheral fluctuation where, as a disabled person in public, you feel people staring at you in the periphery of your vision but when you turn to meet their gaze their eyes vanish and they won’t look you in the eye. Curtis shares: “In my position of white, male, 6-foot-plus privilege I would confidently meet the gaze of women in the street who would often avert their eyes. However, after I had an accident and used crutches for a few weeks those gazes would now be met and maybe even with an exchange of ‘hi’. Was I less of a sexual predator? Less of a man when I was using crutches?”

Looking from afar — from present to past, from exile to homeland, from island back to mainland, mountain-top to lowland — results not in vision’s diffusion but in its sharpening; not in memory’s dispersal but in it’s plenishment.” Robert Macfarlane

In the theatre sometimes we watch, sometimes we witness and sometimes we participate. In asking us to look at them and listen to their lived experiences of being looked at, Cunningham and Curtis are also asking us to reflect and consider our own eyes and the power they hold. What assumptions do we make about how people look? These verbal exchanges are peppered throughout the performance with screened appearances by the philosopher, Alva Nöe, who extrapolates on philosophy, love, Socrates and accessibility in remarkable depth without using inaccessible language. There are words — and plenty of them — constantly nourishing the ears yet it is the physical exchanges between the performers that are delivered with searing depth.

Tenderness abounds and we see moments of genuine exchange as Fred and Ginger’s Dancing Cheek to Cheek fires up to signal the start of a glacial floor-based duet: two bodies lying down upside down, eyes closed, their cheeks kissing and heads nestling in each other’s collar bone. Using the cheek as the point of connection, Curtis and Cunningham slowly, delicately revolve, shifting weight, balance and power; what could have been an indulgent studio-based exercise lands with emotional power. The structure of the evening is deftly woven as scenes melt in and out, inviting different scales, a shift of focus and ample opportunity for reflection. These shifts of mood create a balance that is enhanced by both Luke Pell’s dramaturgy and Chris Copland’s lighting design that ensure a sensitivity and meshing with not only with the artistic intention but how the audience receives the work.

Cunningham also delivers a parkour/contact hybrid on and over the body of Curtis, eating up the floor at speed and negotiating the human nodes around the stage. As Curtis is flat backed on all fours, Claire plants her crutches and skids over him; her four points of contact with the floor (two legs and two crutches) enable her ultimate control. Coming towards me at speed she places her crutches either side of my crossed legs, lifts herself and gently places her foot on my knee. She is airborne – no bodily contact with the floor; our eyes meet for a second before she reverses out of it.

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you. It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us. The possibility of life between us.” Adrienne Rich

Cunningham and Curtis share so much about looking, yet I see something else in the peripheries of The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight; I see the real human cost of judging, staring and objectifying: loneliness and a vacuum of love that slowly breaks your heart. With Cunningham perched silent atop a 12-foot ladder with Curtis gazing at her from below, a series of pre-recorded statements emerge in her voice: “This body has never…carried a television…run on the beach… been in love.” In a moment towards the end Cunningham extends her crutches one last time and launches herself so she and Curtis are equal; no longer cheek to cheek, they are now face to face and here they stay for three or four minutes as she balances with magnetic eyes and bears her weight on her arms. From my position less than 5 feet from this intimate encounter I see all of her face, the flickers of her mouth, the subtle adjustments of her body; but the emotional epicentre is in her eyes.


Dance Umbrella double bill of Idan Sharabi & Claire Cunningham

Posted: October 27th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella double bill of Idan Sharabi & Claire Cunningham

Dance Umbrella: Ours & Give Me a Reason to Live, Lilian Baylis Studio, October 17

Claire Cunningham in Give Me a Reason to Live

Claire Cunningham in Give Me a Reason to Live

Quite apart from its obvious physical dimension, contemporary dance is invariably a touchstone for truths and notions from the worlds of philosophy, art, history, metaphysics, politics and whatever else a choreographer might wish to draw on as material. Claire Cunningham’s Give Me a Reason to Live is rich in resources, leading you into her landscape of preoccupations that range from the nature of sin, empathy, faith, the visibility of minorities, the depiction of cripples in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, Nazi euthanasia of the terminally ill and disabled and the consequences of our present government’s welfare reform. Of course all this is not readily apparent in the performance; you have to dig to find what informs the movement, but without it Give Me a Reason to Live would not be the powerful polemic it is. Cunningham does not have the range of movement of an able-bodied dancer — she suffers from a debilitating form of osteoporosis — but what she does with her crutches and her limited movement is to directly embody her ideas, to live them on stage and because she knows what she is talking about she evokes a visceral response. When she strips off her outer clothing and lays her crutches beside her to stand unaided, there is no pretense. It is a physical and mental struggle that she experiences in real time and she succeeds through sheer willpower until she can endure it no more. What differentiates this naked physical act from the intention behind it is that landscape of preoccupations I mentioned earlier. The word ‘understand’ has the meaning to stand under, or support. Cunningham’s test of endurance is not about her but about what she stands for, about who she supports. She is standing for the countless victims whose disabilities relegate them to the invisible margins of society or worse. Remarkably Cunningham achieves all this through dance.

Standing is but one of the images she invokes on this journey. When we first see her she is slowly extracting herself from a corner as if she had been placed there by history, leaning forward on her crutches as extensions of her arms against the walls. A shard of light (from the palette of Karsten Tinapp) illuminates a thin sliver of her body from head to foot, as if sunlight were falling through a high rectangle of light (the harsh angles in Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin come to mind). Another ineffable image is her rocking gently forward and falling back balanced on her crutches (see photo) to the hauntingly fragile Nesciens Mater by Jean Mouton, after which she slowly collapses to the floor in the form of one of Hieronymous Bosch’s spindly cripples (‘a distorted symbol of human baseness’), crutches at her side. But the final image, the one to which all previous images seem to lead both physically and spiritually, is Cunningham as a Christ-like figure suspended on her elongated crutches braced against the back wall singing (yes, Cunningham trained as a singer before finding her vocation in dance and has a beautiful mezzo voice) Bach’s Cantata BWV 4, Verse 2 with a breathless purity that crowns the journey she has undertaken in light.

No one could defeat death
among all humanity
this was all because of our sins,
no innocence was to be found.
Therefore death came so soon
and took power over us,
held us captive in his kingdom.
Hallelujah!

How do you pair this extraordinarily rich 35-minute work with another without detracting from it in any way? Dance Umbrella’s artistic director Emma Gladstone’s decision to open the evening with Israeli choreographer Idan Sharabi’s Ours is a stroke of genius. On the surface Sharabi’s male duet to songs of Joni Mitchell is funny, engaging and superbly danced by himself and Dor Mamalia, but its central question of what is ‘home’ in Israeli society has a profundity and a vulnerability that shares Cunningham’s preoccupation with invisible minorities and the duet’s suggestion of homosexual love — ‘our little opportunity to find our home together’ — takes on political significance in its context of a strongly homophobic society. Sharabi and Mamalia don’t dwell on this but simply embrace it with tenderness, compassion and a sense of humour that draws the audience in to the work’s humanity. But there is perhaps another, more insidious connection between the two works: hovering in the air between Ours and Give Me a Reason to Live is a commentary on the ever-present spectre of persecution.


Candoco, Marc Brew, Claire Cunningham: Unlimited

Posted: September 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Candoco, Marc Brew, Claire Cunningham: Unlimited

Candoco Unlimited, Unlimited Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, September 6, supported by The Brazilian Embassy.

Unlimited is a project at the heart of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad that celebrates disability, arts and culture on an unprecedented scale. Twenty-nine new works were commissioned to encourage deaf and disabled artists to push boundaries, by creating work which opens doors, changes minds, and inspired new collaborations. (Arts Council England)

The Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre is an encouraging, life-affirming project that parallels the sporting premise of the Paralympics, and it finds a fullness of expression in the two works commissioned by Unlimited and presented by Candoco Dance Company at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday evening: Parallel Lines by Marc Brew, and 12 by Claire Cunningham.

The motivating idea behind Brew’s Parallel Lines is the lines of communication between the 2012 Olympics host country, its predecessor, China, and its successor, Brazil, and it uses dancers from all three countries. The cables we see suspended and stretched across the stage are both the lines that unite by carrying this communication, and the lines – like race, physical ability or national borders – that can demarcate. Parallel Lines is thus an idea that works on an intellectual level as well as on stage, thanks to Brew’s creative, all-embracing magic. He has the dual experience of being an able-bodied dancer (he used to dance with Candoco) who now finds himself in a wheelchair, so he has a profoundly nuanced understanding of what it means to have unlimited movement and what it means to be physically constrained.

Another force that leads Parallel Lines forward is its score by Michael Galasso (Scenes), creating a series of delightful variations that allow space for the dancers to move in between its layers. Brew has caught the dynamics of the music beautifully in his own treatments of duet, trio, quartet and ensemble, mixing male and female, male and male, able and disabled, with an overarching theme of support, be it from the ground or from a partner. The duet with Darren Anderson and Edu stands out as an expression of courage, strength, caring and love, with a delightful sense of humour. Brew transforms disability into an emotional quality that imbues the partnerships he sets up with an equality and universality that is surely the summit of his achievement. The creative elements of set design (Sam Collins), costumes (Jo Paul) and lighting (Ben Pacey) complete the unity of this work.

Claire Cunningham takes a different tack in her creative process. She is used to choreographing work on her own body and drawing material from her own life, incorporating the crutches on which she relies. She said in a Q&A after the performance that the prospect of creating work on a group of dancers filled her with misgiving and fear. There was the double challenge of creating for both disabled and non-disabled dancers and of assigning the movement’s ownership to someone other than herself. Her solution to the first was, like Brew’s, an emotional one: finding in the crutch a symbol of our forms of dependence, something with which we can all associate. Cunningham’s answer to the second was to get the dancers to create autobiographical material of their own by giving them improvisation tasks in the studio, and taking from the movement what she and her assistant director and mentor, Gail Sneddon, felt was right for 12. The advantage of working in this way is that it has allowed Cunningham to break through a psychological barrier to realizing a much broader palette. The danger, however, is that the material escapes her creative control, as with Pandora’s box, and cannot be enticed back. 12 is thus uneven in its pace, abstruse at times, but never lacking in visually arresting imagery. Crutches are used as guns and as air guitars, and in a particularly oppressive scene, as elements of violent manipulation and submission: emotional dependence has a decidedly dark side. Crutches are also used in less sinister fashion as elements of an animated conversation between Welly O’Brien and Mickaella Dantas, and as puppet sticks in the scene with the bookish Ming Hei Wong and the voluptuous Annie Hanauer who dances around a candy cotton microphone to Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. Dan Daw, whose dramatic talent shines here, is mesmerising as he strives to control an errant arm while seated in a chair. Shanti Freed evidently had a lot of fun with the costumes, and Matthias Herrmann’s score hung on to Cunningham’s roller-coaster vision by the seat of its pants. Karsten Tinapp lit it all admirably through the billowing fog.

What Marc Brew and Claire Cunningham so convincingly affirmed on Thursday night is that there is no notion of disability in terms of artistic expression, and the dancers are all brilliant performers. Candoco’s reputation has been sufficiently established that it is perhaps time to quietly remove its label of disabled and non-disabled dancers. And where, oh where, are the designer crutches?