The Way You Look (at me) Tonight confronts the stigma of performance as a contrived artform. This show is presented as part of the upcoming Unlimited Festival, celebrating a body of contemporary disabled artists. A project by Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look asks what it means for us to recognise something of themselves in the nuances behind individual perception. Narration - through the medium of spoken word, song and live dialogue - balances the potential for criticism with the potential to inspire their audiences, questioning the very validity of performance itself: “Is that arrogant? is that generous?”
The most humbling thing about Curtis and Cunningham is the honesty they share, even on stage. Jess Curtis’ lean, muscular frame appears to be his stronghold. However, a recent hip injury put his perceived strength in contention with the eyes of others. Suddenly defined by his crutches and his shock of grey hair, Curtis was continually made aware of how being seen - as ‘weak’ or ‘old’ - may position him in the ‘peripheral vision’ of a public who flinch or fear or sympathise with his injuries.
On the other hand, Claire Cunningham has been disabled since her teens. She has been reliant on crutches since. Through contact-led activity with Curtis and their audience, these crutches become a grounds for intimacy, support, and engage her in an delicate ‘menage a trois’; between her, her left arm, and her right.
As the show unravels, I realise that I’ve come to the Tramway with my own apprehensions. Some of us are invited to sit on stage. I’m a nervy type, the kind who wouldn’t have normally taken up the offer. As a disabled person, I figured it was the right thing to do. It’s this same moral upstanding that shocks me when Cunningham’s tender foot touches my knee. Ballerina toes without the soft-padded shoes. She panders on her digits at first - a digitigrade girl, more heels than toes, more flesh than feet. She hops from person-to-person, using audience members’ bodies as select platforms from which to balance and project herself into another mode of dance. These imperfections will acknowledge how hard human skin can be to exist within; what our own projected fears have tried to camouflage all this time - even here; even now.
I have never been so transfixed.
Worst of all is when Cunningham clambers under a ladder. I catch my breath. Curtis - with the rest of us - remain buoyant; tangibly ‘above the surface’. We are not submerged, nor taken in by the beauty of her strength, of the silhouette she casts against the light. She is moving the ladder, bit by bit, metallic scrapes rippling through the room. She is unsupported by her beloved crutches. I want to help her, to put everything to a pause. Is that arrogant? Is that generous? It’s impossible to say.
The Way You Look (at me) Tonight will be performed at Tramway on the 15th and 16th of September. For tickets, see: http://www.tramway.org/events/pages/tramways-unlimited-festival.aspx
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