Claire Cunningham, the UK’s most acclaimed disabled dance artist is currently touring her work The Way You Look (at me) Tonight internationally. The performance is made up of a unique mix of dance, philosophy and storytelling, with the audience sitting on stage and coming into physical contact with the performers. The audience is invited to participate and explore the implications of disability, not only as a choreographer but also in terms of societal notions.

Able Magazine got the chance to interview Claire Cunningham to find out more about her upcoming performances including her thoughts on inclusive dance techniques, the perception of the human body and future projects.

Can you tell us what The Way You Look (at me) Tonight is about and how it explores the implications of disability in terms of societal notions? 

The Way You Look (at me) Tonight looks at perception and how our bodies perceive the world. In particular, Jess and I engaged with our collaborator Alva Noë’s theories of enactive perception – the idea that we create, or enact, our own perceptions – the capacities of our bodies to see, or hear, or reach out, touch etc create our own perception of the world.  It draws our attention to how we all perceive the world in different ways, and that no one perspective is true or should be more valued.

Jess and I tell a lot of stories throughout the show which illustrate how we perceive the world – because of how our bodies are: short, tall, disabled, non-disabled, male, female, white and so on -and also how those factors affect how we are perceived by others.  

It also opens up how our identities have formed based on our bodies – so, for example, I talk about how my using the crutches in a dance context changed my relationship to them and made me really value and care about them, and other aspects such as how using the crutches and being perceived as disabled affected my relationship to gender – such as thinking I was “unfeminine” because of aspects of my body, or a sense that I am viewed in quite a “desexualised” way which feels very much related to having a disabled body.

So it opens up quite weighty topics, but in really light and fun ways… honestly, it’s a fun show I promise!

Part of your work is focusing on how bodies shape the way we perceive the world around us – do you feel your performance changes how we see others?

I’m afraid you would have to ask our audience whether it changes anything for them. We certainly get feedback from people after the show or on social media that says it has given them a lot to think about and made them consider how they are viewing other people – whether they actually actively change their behaviour as a result of that… we can’t really know.

I think however people start to consider some more nuanced ways in which they maybe have been perceiving others and I’d like to hope that after the show they notice that more.  I think so much of our work these days needs to be about recognising our own privileges, and unlearning preconceptions and prejudices that have been very subtly conditioned into us. I’d like to think this show tries to help in doing some of that work in a small way.

As a self-defining disabled artist, the use of your crutches is important to your choreography. What are the main techniques you use that reject traditional dance techniques developed for non-disabled bodies?

I learned elements of Shannon Technique – which was developed by Bill Shannon, the US artist and theorist who also uses crutches. I worked with Bill and learned moves and techniques that were transferrable between his style of crutches (underarm) and mine (forearm) crutches, and then looked at what was adaptable between his technique and my body and crutches.  

From Jess Curtis I learned about Contact Improvisation dance technique – and really learned the precision and actual technique of it. It is a dance form that many people often think is just very open and free, and many people don’t really drill into the skills to make it safer and more specific. But I really enjoyed learning how to treat it as a discipline and how to have more satisfying and respectful dances from it in that way.

And then I have really developed my own technique, that has come from a combination of these two approaches combined with my own interest in the crutches, and of using them in different ways, and of just following my own curiosity into what is possible with the crutches.  There are very specific ways of working with them that are really only possible because of my body, the specific crutches I use, and the decades of time I have spent with them learning how to work with them in more and more ways.

How did you find working with award-winning choreographer and performance artist, Jess Curtis? Did you both have unique ideas and techniques to bring to the performance?

I think there was a combination of our shared techniques from having worked together previously, and also new ideas based on having spent about 5 years apart, and therefore bringing new things into the room.  I had become interested in practices of journeying/travelling or walking together with people, interested in what this brought to not only the conversation you have with that person but also about drawing our attention to what we were respectively noticing when moving through or navigating space, and how this was specific to our own bodies.

Jess had recently undertaken a master degree and PhD and was bringing his own ideas around perception especially in relation to performance.

We both brought different ideas, but we also brought different collaborators and colleagues too, which really shaped the performance, for example I introduced Jess to my dramaturg Luke Pell who then worked with us, and Jess brought Michiel Keuper as set/costume designer, so we also opened up each other’s work and practice in those ways by crafting a team of collaborators together.

Part of the performance is to have the audience sitting on the stage, coming into physical contact with performers. Did you find it helped having the audience participate in order to understand our habits and practices of perceiving each other and the world?

Yes, it felt like this was an essential part of the work, that rather than us just talking about it or demonstrating it, we actually had to activate the audience to engage in the ways of perceiving that we were interested in or trying to bring attention to.  So for example we encourage the audience to experiment and try using their vision in different ways near the beginning of the show and to get them accustomed to the idea that their own capacities to move their heads and bodies will give them greater access to moments in the performance, but also to have them realise that no-one in the show gets the same access to the performance or sees/hears/feels/notices everything, that everyone’s experience of the show (and life!) is very different.

As a Glasgow-born artist, can you tell us how your Scottish identity has shaped your work and career? 

I was born in Kilmarnock, which is very close to Glasgow, but became based in Glasgow when I began to work in the arts. Being based in Scotland is the reason I’ve been able to have the career I have had, because Creative Scotland (our national arts funder) has supported the development of work and careers of disabled artists to an extent that no other country I think has so far.  But I think in terms of character and identity, it’s meant that humour has always been important to me, and more specifically quite dry, self-deprecating humour is definitely often present in my work which I think is quite characteristic of Scottish people. I find it an important element of my work in terms of creating connection with an audience and also a means of being able to touch on quite serious topics but not alienate people.

What accessible performances have you got coming up for The Way You Look (at me) Tonight within the UK?  Where will the international tour take you?

We have 2 shows coming up very soon at The Place in London, on the 14th and 15th May.  The Place have been great supporters of my work and I’m really looking forward to performing there again.  We have Audio Description available both nights, with a preshow Touch Tour on 15th May, and on 14th May there will be Sign Language Interpretation by Jeni Draper.

Our current tour this April and May takes us to Leipzig, and Bremen in Germany, to Zurich in Switzerland and to Umeå in Sweden, so a really nice trip.

You are currently developing a new work Thank You Very Much which will premiere at Manchester International Festival this year. Can tell us a bit about your new work and plans for the future? 

My new work is a group piece – really the first time I have brought together a company of performers, and I have specifically invited a group of artists who also self-identify as disabled artists, and individuals who I really appreciate as dancers and wanted to work with.  

The work is based around all of us (myself included as I am also performing) having gone and trained with professional Elvis Presley Tribute Artists (yes really!). I became curious about the idea that perhaps many disabled people – particularly those of us who were disabled children – spent a lot of their life training, particularly through “therapies” such as physiotherapy, speech therapy – in a way trying to be like someone else. Or actually more trying to be like a mythological body or person that none of us could ever become no matter how hard we worked.  And more recently I began to think that perhaps this was a bit like people who work to try to perform like someone else, in particular, some idol, or idealised person.

And I thought there was something interesting in this comparison, but also quite fun to look at. Also to be honest I’ve always been a bit of an Elvis fan and it gave me an opportunity to indulge that a little! There are also things in Elvis’ movement that I find interesting as a choreographer that I felt I related to as a disabled person and so that also is a foundation of the research.

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