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In Performance

In Performance: Claire Cunningham & Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight (American Realness)

Jess Curtis

The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight
Claire Cunningham & Jess Curtis
American Realness, Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
January 10-13, 2018

The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight is a collaborative, exploratory performance of a collaborative exploration into dance, disability, and sensation and the act of looking. Undertaken by San Francisco contemporary dance mainstay Jess Curtis and Scottish disabled artist Claire Cunningham, the piece unfolds as an attempt to understand each other, partly through conversation and partly through shared movement practice.

Collaborative spirit runs through the work beyond the lead artists, as well. The performance is haunted by video of philosopher Dr. Alva Noë, who appears from time to time seemingly to connect the proceedings to a longer history of perceptual discourse. The work is also haunted by disabled dance artist Bill Shannon, repeatedly evoked by Cunningham as a transformative force in her artistic and spiritual journey. Fred Astaire, perhaps the imaginary ur-Astaire of Jules Feiffer, makes an appearance, as do the (straight) artists’ queer communities from their outside lives. It amounts to a proposed unity beneath the difference between critical lenses of difference. In this space, dance, philosophy, queer life, ‘crip theory’, and media art share a fundamental sameness in their concerns with perception and identity—and are each fundamentally beautiful, as separately named lenses, as they are.

With the audience seated partially onstage, Curtis and Cunningham steadily move between the distributed seats, in discussion (timed, but unscripted) and in dance. At times the conversation is stunning: when Cunningham describes how her crutches operate as both a cyborg-like prosthesis and an intimate personal relationship, and that she has come to understand this relationship as fundamentally queer, she seems to be in an active struggle to articulate a feeling for which there are not yet stable concepts, and it is astonishing to be present for. When Curtis tries to find a point of similarity between the third-gender desexualized state of being a visibly disabled woman and his experience flirting with gay men who don’t know he’s straight, it is less astonishing. In this room, however, I wonder if I’ve simply lost the ability to listen to people’s intersectional experiences if they aren’t, somehow, “big enough.” That thought picks at me, and I’m thankful for it.

As Curtis and Cunningham contact and weight-share their way through the evening, I see an embodied familiarity and trust that perhaps makes these sometimes-halting verbal conversations possible—and watching Cunningham dance in silhouette on a ladder midway through the piece, something clicks into place that never did before about what sensation might be like inside her body. It’s not a new idea, but indeed the seat of knowledge is not only the frontal lobes and linguistic centers of the brain. Hippie-vibes or no, it would probably help more than we can imagine if we were to dance with each other.

Photo: Robbie Sweeny

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Eben Hoffer is a sound artist and theater director. His work focuses on the limits of understanding in identity and power structures. His work with Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble has been seen at PICA:TBA, Philadelphia FringeArts, PS122, Under The Radar Festival, and The Bushwick Starr in New York. His music has toured nationally with Big Dance Theater, and his original choreographic works have been seen at small venues across New York City. Carnegie Mellon MFA 2020.

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