Claire Cunningham on ‘The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight’

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How do we look at each other? How do we allow ourselves to be seen? How do our bodies shape the ways we perceive the world around us? These are some of the questions raised by a new work by acclaimed Scottish disabled artist Claire Cunningham, who will be performing – for the first time in more than a decade – with international choreographer and performer Jess Curtis, the man who originally introduced her to dance. Paul F Cockburn spoke with Claire about the origins of the show and its place in her ongoing career.

A photograph of dancer Claire Cunningham, she is up a ladder with a huge projection of an eye in the background behind her.

Unlimited commission – ‘The Way You Look at Me Tonight’, by Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis. Image © Sven Hagolani

“I was beginning to note threads through my work, which are also shaping the direction of a lot of my practice; for example, the fact that I look at the ground all the time is a big factor in a lot of my work and therefore affects the environments that I create, and manifests in the way I move in the world. I’d also been developing an interest in how that articulates in other people’s lives, particularly disabled people’s lives. How we perceive the world was kind of already filtering through my interest.

“Then I began to think that it might be quite interesting to work with Jess again. He is one of the few people that I have always felt very comfortable dancing with – one of the few people that I trust to dance with. Also, when I’d worked with Jess [back in 2005], we had met Dr Alva Noë, who is a philosopher at Berkeley.

“Alva often talks about dance as a philosophy; he’s always had a real fascination with dance, and had been Philosopher in Residence with the American choreographer William Forsythe. Although at the time I didn’t understand Alva’s theories myself, I knew he talked about how our bodies are involved in perception, and not just the brain. So I was thinking; maybe there’s something here that Jess, Alva and I could work on? I wrote to Jess and a while later he wrote to me with exactly the same proposition. We both had very similar interests, but were coming at them from very different directions. It seemed like it all made sense.”

“We were very fortunate that the idea was strong enough and fascinated people sufficiently, not least because the work is very rooted in Jess and I’s history. Jess was the person who really triggered my fascination with movement. He was my mentor for many years – and still is, in many ways. A lot of the ways of working that I learned from Jess pervade all my work; he was the first person with whom I really explored the limits of what my body could do, and also how to push those limits safely.”

Nevertheless, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight will be the first time they’ve worked together in more than a decade.

two dancers pose on the floor against the wall, one wears a teddy bear mask

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis. Image © Sven Hagolani

“I chose not to work with Jess for quite a few years, on purpose. Because he was such a strong mentor and teacher, I felt like I needed to step away for a while to know that I could do it without him. It’s interesting now to come back; our lives have moved on. Physically we’ve changed and emotionally we all move on. It’s revisiting the familiarity of somebody whom I first danced with, but with much more experience of my own body.”

Best known for creating solo works, Claire’s most notable duet previously was Ménage à trois.

“Because it was all tuned into video elements, which were very specific animations, there was no space for improvisations; Ménage à trois was very tightly choreographed movement that was very highly rehearsed. Working with dancer Chris Owen on it was wonderful; he was brilliant, but I didn’t feel experienced enough to be able to improvise very much or to allow space for it. I have that level of confidence with Jess because of the degree of experience he has, and from having worked together so many times in the past.

“I’m perpetually trying to find a way to make myself more free on stage, bit by bit. Every time something becomes a comfort zone, I ask how do I move out of it? Work by work, I’m always trying to challenge myself that little bit more. Guide Gods, for example: what if an audience were closer to me? Could I be more relaxed and not as stylised? Guide Gods also had a structure, but allowed improvisation: here are the tea-cups, I’m going to dance around them, but there isn’t a specific choreography that I have to follow in the same way every night. Gradually and subtly, bit by bit, I’m giving myself challenges to change my behaviour as an artist and a performer, but not too many that everything falls apart.

“I feel more equipped to deal with whatever can happen now, as long as we’ve done our homework and researched sufficiently to make sure that the container has some rules, a context. It’s really quite exciting for me that I can challenge my own comfort zones that way. What’s interesting in this work with Jess is that there are very clear decisions that are underlying what we’re doing, but they allow us space to breathe and a live-ness that I think, for an audience, is intrinsically engaging and also quite challenging to be part of.”

Claire is now undoubtedly one of the UK’s most respected disabled artists; how does she feel about that?

“In the early years there had always been that question: am I ticking someone’s box, so to speak? I don’t feel that any more. I feel my work is being respected. People are also going out and staking their own reputations on endorsing it. That implies a tremendous degree of trust that I really appreciate, and feel very… ‘flattered’ sounds a bit cheesy, but I feel incredibly supported. Obviously there’s the financial support, and that comes with a lot of responsibility, but there’s a degree of psychological support that comes with that.

“Another way in which I feel supported is that I’m starting to do more mentoring work, which I never really did before because I didn’t feel confident or knew what I could offer people. I genuinely am starting to feel that I’m at a place where I can pass something on, to respect myself in a way – that I know stuff that is useful to other people!”

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis perform The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight as part of the Unlimited Festival at the Royal Festival Hall on Tue 6 – Wed 7 September. There will be a discussion following the performance on 6 Sep. Tickets are £20.

They will also perform the work as part of the Unlimited festival at Tramway, Glasgow, on Thu 15 – Fri 16 September. The performance on Thu 15 will be Audio Described; that on Fri 16 will be BSL interpreted. Braille, large print and audio versions of the programme are available. Tickets are £10 (£7 concessions).

Co-commissioned by Unlimited and Tramway Glasgow, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight is supported by The Place, London, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and the British Council.