Dancing Abilities

claire cunningham & jess curtis,the way you look (at me) tonight @ flynn center for the performing arts, 3 february 2018.

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

Claire Cunningham climbs an A-frame ladder. Her body presents as disabled, but one would hardly call her disabled as she ascends. Without the full use of her legs, she uses her arms to hoist herself up. Almost to the top, she perches on a step and turns toward us in the audience. In a hauntingly pure, almost vibratoless alto, she sings the words of a Robert Burns poem from 1789, “John Anderson, My Jo.” It is sad and beautiful and out of time and completely in the moment. High above us, her voice soars. She arms herself back down, and returns to her full-cuff crutches, slipping them around her wrists with dexterity and purpose.

Jess Curtis rolls forward, pitching his body toward the ground. He is tall and athletic, a “dancer.”  But then he awkwardly stops, right at the moment of feeling pain in his left hip. Actually, it’s not his hip. After arthritis in that part of his body, he had hip replacement surgery. Ostensibly able-bodied, he now uses a prosthetic limb to enable his movement, only that prosthetic limb is on the inside. You can’t see it.

Claire Cunningham in The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight. Photo: Sven Hagolani.

Abled and disabled grow increasingly indistinguishable in this work. It accesses both terms, and troubles the distinction between them as it makes issues of access themselves central to its explorations. What is access? How do we pursue it, gain it, lose it? How does it pursue us, gain us, or lose us? And, access to what, exactly? These are question that Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis explore in this informal, conversational yet highly complex, extended duet. Down to earth and casual one moment, dazzlingly complex and layered with multimedia the next, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight asks us to look twice at what we see when we consider who has access to what kinds of knowledge, expertise, understanding, beauty, wisdom—and on what terms.

We in the audience gain access in a very direct way to this work: in a gesture of inclusivity,  immediacy, and intimacy that is increasingly being used in contemporary dance, even in cavernous, beautiful theaters such as the Flynn, Cunningham and Curtis bring us on stage with them. Like party hosts, they are there to greet us as we enter through the side stage doors, seating us in chairs and on cushions. They position us in various directions and as the piece unfolds, the performers begin to move around us, sometimes pacing and talking with each other, sometimes sitting down themselves, sometimes lying on the floor and rolling around each other, sometimes even, with permission, touching audience members gently with feet and hands to push off in new directions.

The performance starts, in a sense, before it actually starts. After all are seated, Cunningham and Curtis offer a kind of prologue, an invocation. It includes everything from the ground rules of the performance to acknowledgments of various collaborators from the technical staff to philosopher Alva Noë to an announcement of where the bathrooms and exits are located. It is pre-performance, but in fact a key part of setting the tone for the rest of the piece, which itself floats between the unceremonious and the highly ritualistic throughout its duration.

In many ways, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight takes us into the process of its own making, as if the stage were a rehearsal studio. But what a fancy rehearsal space! Large loops of thin wire dangle from the ceiling, like hoop earrings. Three large video screens surround stage left, right, and upstage. They feature geometric shapes and, occasionally, video of Noë reflecting on what philosophy and choreography share as interruptions of flow, of moments when dance is redirected toward heightened awareness.

And much of The Way You Look (at me) Tonight adopts this tactic of interruption in service of more strenuous reflection. One of the best opening gambits in this extended duet of two dancers consists of increasingly concealed and cut-up film clips of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers dancing as Astaire sings Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’s “The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time. Of course, Astaire and Rodgers are renowned and appreciated for their virtuosic flow, coordination, and style. Cunningham and Curtis seem to work against this at first. For instance, they ask us to join a set piece about the awkwardness of peripheral vision. It is driven by their experiences of how people looked at them askance when each used crutches in public. They ask the audience to join them in this experiment in seeing by witnessing the performance in peripheral vision. We are told to try to avoid looking directly at them as they dart around us.

In this manner, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight becomes about problematizing flow, ease, and grace. Cunningham and Curtis roll around in contortions on the floor at one point as their voices are heard in the sound design commenting on their hesitations about getting the close contact movement correct. And some of the best moments in the piece consist simply of conversation between the two about topics of disability, contact improvisation, proprioception, sexuality. They feel loose, easy, semi-improvised, conducted in humorous, back-and-forth riffs. But just as Cunningham and Curtis get rolling in each one, their tech assistant yells out “5 minutes!” and they move on to the next segment.

The result is a kind of episodic stutter of investigations that snowballs into the coherent entirety of an evening-length work. So that even as they contrast themselves to the iconic images of Rodgers and Astaire, those figures who symbolize the poised quintessence of movement, Cunningham and Curtis eventually themselves become their own sort of more intellectual, experimental version of the famous dance duo. Through a kind of sensitive support for each other, they skillfully, one might even say virtuosically, insert the parenthesis “(at me)” into “The Way You Look Tonight.” They swing in their own time. Curtis takes on an Astaire-like playfulness; and Cunningham can do everything he can do, but backwards, and with crutches.

Indeed, Cunningham’s crutches become key parts of the performance, almost like two additional dancers—four when Curtis uses his own set. In much usage of the term, a crutch is a negative thing signaling overreliance on an unnecessary structure or practice. The Way You Look (at me) Tonight blows that vapid use of the term away. At one point Cunningham becomes the far more abled expert body on stage as she shows Curtis how to do certain pivots and moves with them. He struggles with what she does masterfully, as if to ask, in a challenging tone, “Who is disabled and who isn’t now, buster?”

If anything creates a kind of underlying rhythm and tempo, a groove—perhaps even a crutch in the most positive, revelatory sense of the term?—in The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, it is Cunningham’s persistent pacing around the audience on her crutches, swiveling left and right, negotiating the space, sometimes quite quickly, as if she were trying to get somewhere fast, other times more slowly and meditatively. She sometimes seemed to be marking out the stage as quite public space, maybe a streetscape or a battlefield even. In other instances, it almost felt like we were witnessing a private kind of pacing that one might do alone, unaware of others, deep in thought. Either way, this quotidian motion creates a sort of pulse, a velocity, an underlying beat to the piece.

Cunninghmam’s constitutionals around the audience on stage become a kind of brace for The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, bolstering what sometimes becomes quite extensive philosophical meditation, at other times is just light-hearted, joking, playful banter, and, at its best, moves intriguingly between these two modes. There are times, however, when the voiceover audio tilts a bit too much to the precious side—maybe a touch too much of the “(at me)” inserted into this work in those moments? I found that when the piece reaches away from the self and toward new objects, people, jokes, experiences, and interactions, the preciousness dissipates. When we listened to descriptions of what we were seeing on stage as it happened, things closed in. Access decreased. Almost because there is too much attention to the here and now. Sometimes to be present and more alert, with awareness heightened, means insisting on reaching toward, referring to, and bringing in what is not immediately available. Gesturing outward and away can in fact intensify contact with the place and people on hand right around you.

Ultimately, however, at the end of this piece, Cunningham and Curtis resolve The Way You Look (at me) Tonight into a beautiful and daringly simple gesture: an embrace. The two performers leave behind the heady inquiry in their final duet. Returning to that basic emotion, love, and its power of persistent commitment, they balance against each other, trusting that each will catch the other and keep the partner upright. Then they sit down and gaze into each other’s eyes, pressing palms to each other, holding hands. They close by proposing that the most powerful access of all—the crutch that supports far more than anything else—is not dissolving into another or rejecting them, but connecting with another who connects back to you.

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