“How do we look at each other?
How do we allow ourselves to be seen?
How do our bodies shape the way we perceive the world around us?”
The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight targets fairly hefty questions, and there certainly are a lot of words spoken trying to answer them. Moreover, the presence of ‘Philosophical Consultation’ from Alva Noë, professor of philosophy at the University of Berkeley, is certainly a little intimidating. Yet, for a work that could have been extremely dense, and tangled in theory, Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis have created a work that is endlessly light. Curtis remarks in the opening exchanges that a lot of contemporary dance is not accessible, yet this piece, despite its rigorous engagement with its subject, is wonderfully so.
Commissioned as part of Unlimited Festival, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight makes a valuable contribution to discussions about how people with impairments both perceive the world and are perceived by others. A wide range of topics relating to the experience of being disabled are discussed, from the underlying mechanisms of discrimination to those that are more overt. Throughout it all the two performers continually check-in with their audience, making their intentions and aims clear each time they speak, dance or sing, demystifying what that section of the work is about, and then moving onto something new.
My experience of the performance is from a chair placed onstage, amidst the action with another thirty or so audience members. Above us there are lots of coloured hoops hanging vertically from the ceiling, and a ladder sits immediately behind myself. Another audience is seated along three edges of the performance space, and another audience still is seated in raked seating facing onto the stage, some distance away. The work is self-described as a social sculpture, and its dynamics play out in performance. I am always aware that I am being seen, that I am seeing others, and that there are other parties watching from a distance, some I can see, and some I cannot.
It is not just my gaze, but my whole body becomes activated in this space. I twist to watch Cunningham climb a ladder and a deep warmth runs through my spine, loosening up my typically sore back. Curtis’s bad hip rests against my left shoulder, and Cunningham even sits in my lap. Contact, initially scary, becomes something to relish; different and exciting means of perceiving each other in the space. They joke that this performance is ideal for those desperate for physical contact. At its end I find myself at a slight loss, a little desperate for some more, a bit more aware of how I typically encounter the world, hands in pockets.
Affordances, the possibilities of actions offered by an environment, an object, or a body – think of the way in which parkour runners re-purpose walls, ledges and railings – structures the choreographies I most enjoyed. Using this notion as a guide, Cunningham and Curtis explore how their bodies afford possibilities to each other, where hands could become floors, where backs could become platforms and where the knees of audience members might serve as a rest for feet. This duet moves like a dialogue, a performance of offering and receiving, of asking, “What do you need?” and replying, “What can I offer?” It slowly shifts across the stage, assembling with audience members in turn. It is very beautiful to watch, and I can remember the weight of Cunningham’s feet on my knees.
As the performance closes, Cunningham lengthens her crutches and pushes down, raising herself off the floor and forward into Curtis, so that their foreheads meet. His hands take to the top of her arms, with his back curving inward to follow, and his left leg moves slightly behind his right. They hold this balance, negotiating how their bodies support each other, constantly shifting in weight, making wiggles, or twitches. It looks precarious, and there is always the risk of a fall, but they hold, and sustain it. These two bodies, always offering, always listening, helping each other to mutually access the world.
The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight is a hugely accessible work about access, expanding a term typically associated with ramps and lifts into a mode of looking at the world, a method of negotiation, a way of figuring out what others need, and how we might provide for them.