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