In 2106 Luke was dramaturg for Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis’s work The Way You Look (at me) Tonight which continues to tour internationally. The duet was presented at the 2018 TanzPlatorm and the following interview with Luke was commissioned for an accompanying publication.
Presence, absence, power, play and perception a conversation between performer-creators Jess Curtis, Claire Cunningham and dramaturge Luke Pell
Each independently renowned, Claire Cunningham is a Scotland based multi- disciplinary performer, creator and self-identifying disabled artist and activist and Jess Curtis is a performer, teacher and choreographer-director of Berlin/San Francisco based Jess Curtis/Gravity.
Curtis describes his creative history as ‘a patchwork’ beginning with a traditional training with (ex-Limon principal) Lucas Hoving, to working in the 1980’s with Sara Shelton Mann’s Contraband and CORE with Keith Hennessy - with whom he co-directed 848 Community Space - to a stint in the circus with Comagnie Cahin- Caha, before founding his own trans-continental performance company in 2000.
Cunningham originally trained as a classical singer, then worked as a performer and arts-administrator with the musical theatre company Sounds of Progress before meeting Curtis in 2005 in an aerial work with UK based company Blue Eyed Soul. Following their initial encounter Cunningham went on to undertake intensive training with US-based interdisciplinary artist and maker – who dances on crutches - Bill Shannon. Performing again with Curtis in 2007 and 2010 in his ensemble projects alongside creating five new solo works of her own into 2014, rapidly growing her reputation as one of the world’s leading disabled artists.
In 2015 Curtis and Cunningham came back together to create and perform the duet The Way You Look (at me) Tonight in collaboration
LP: One of the things I’ve noted during my time working with you is the particularity of your performance heritages. Would you share a little bit about the importance of these influences?
CC: There were people like Gerry Mulgrew, founder of Communicado Theatre - who was the director of the first theatre piece I was ever in. I remember telling him there was nothing interesting about me, or my life to learn and he was like “ah we’ll see!” I learned from that piece that we are all interesting and have a valid story to tell. It’s not just famous people, or old dead white men who are supposedly “interesting.” Everyone has beautiful and unique experiences and insights – but often we are made to feel like we are unremarkable.
I also learned very simple things from that piece about how to be present on stage without drawing focus, or how to direct or draw an audiences’ focus when wanted. Many of those things resonated with ways that Jess would work when I met him. He made me really interested in the idea of what it means to be present, live, how it might be linked to where our attention is. He made me think about what the choice to perform is, to not just take that for granted.
I think Jess really was the person who not only fed into me the core things I have become interested by in terms of making performance, but who started me asking questions. And those questions really haven’t stopped. philosopher of perception Dr. Alva Noë, video artist Yoann Trellu, composer with noted author and Matthias Herrmann, designer Michiel Keuper and myself as dramaturg. Here, we talk about the evolution of their practices and their intersections in this project.
JC: I guess one common thread is the rigorous use of techniques of improvisation as a means to access the experience of each body in the room which provided a platform for - and even demanded - collaborating with performers with more and more diverse skills, physicalities and experiences. With Sara and Contraband I learned a lot about creating in structures that really brought everyone’s lived experience into the room. I should also acknowledge my good friend Keith Hennessy who, as a fellow member of Contraband brought lots of tools and techniques from political organizing and other inclusive artistic processes.
Along the way I would also say a sort of watershed moment was meeting Emery Blackwell and Alito Alessi and seeing them perform. Emery was the first self- identifying disabled performer that I had ever seen and I recall being blown away by the way that he used his unique movement qualities on stage, improvisationally finding the balance between his own movement intentions and the inherent dance of his body’s involuntary movements.
CC: The other big influence in my life as an artist is Bill Shannon. He gave me the very basic toolbox for working in movement that no-one had taught me – how to think in terms of creating scores, of using rhythm, height, pace, phrasing, repetition...and so on. Bill also taught me how to fall, he taught me to reframe my thinking and in doing so notice my conditioned tendency to compare myself to a non-disabled ideal.
LP: When I talk with you about these people and your work, I think about artists as activists. What are the politics of your work and TWYL?
CC: I think I understood early on that my presence on a stage was inherently political simply because I was a disabled person. That in its self was an important thing, partly to just try to change the demographics of our stages. However as I began to make more work I became more interested in my lived experience of disability, more conscious of wanting to create work that allows for and foregrounds aspects of that. For example learning about theories such as Crip Time, the idea that the lived experience brings a different relationship to time and to “normative” notions of time and timings. I’m interested in refocusing peoples attention around what they think is valuable, what is skill, what disability actually brings to a life, rather than traditional, ableist ideas of seeing it only in terms of what is presumed lost.
I think this manifests in TWYL in terms of how Jess and I walk around the space, talking. We very much set our own paces, we are not trying to walk in unison, or together, in fact Jess steps into my pacing by using the crutches, but actually probably slower as he is less experienced at using them. The space we set up also brings this perspective into focus – we create a space that requires a lot of attention to maneuver in- travelling around people, I sometime step lightly, with permission, onto people. It is a space that absolutely foregrounds my skill and attentiveness and spatial awareness, and because of what Jess and I do, turns the audiences awareness towards this way of being too.
JC: All work has political consequence. Some work affirms the status quo and some questions it. If you are lucky, think critically and work hard I’d like to think that the best work goes beyond questioning the status quo to actually give people an experience of something new that they can take out of the theater and implement in their lives.
LP: So how did you choose what to focus on for this project together?
JC: I met Alva first at the German Tanz Kongress when it was in Berlin. He came to see some of my work and met Claire and we had all been interested by each other’s work for quite some time. For me his ideas around perception as rooted in our own habits and practices of movement were very exciting as a body-based artist, both intellectually, but also practically in terms of my own compositional choices and thinking through the practical dynamics of how it is that an audience functionally experiences my work.
CC: Realising I was specifically interested in what the lived experience of disability made me notice in the world - how it shaped my behavior and my perspective, rather than simply it being about how I was perceived by others - I spent a lot of time looking at how this manifested in my work. I became interested in talking about it with other disabled folk. It wasn't until I met and spoke with Carrie Sandhal that I understood that what I was articulating was the phenomenology of disability. This made me think of Alva and how when we met he clearly noticed things and had a perspective on my work that no one else had. When Jess and I spoke after a few years of not having seen each other we realized that - from his PhD work - his interests were in a very similar place to mine but coming from a different direction/root. We both thought working with Alva was a really interesting, exciting idea.
LP: Philosophical questions, your politics, these values are woven throughout the fabric of the performance. Could you talk a little about that?
JC: I would say what I always say to my composition students. “Everything Counts.” From the text on your flyer to what language you are performing in, what your audience might have eaten for dinner and who can afford to come to your show, or not... There is no ‘outside’ to the politics of performance.
CC: Working on a show about embodied perception, the possibility to explore questions with people who perceive the world with different sensory modalities is vital. To work with people who communicate only in a visual language like ASL rather than in words - so much opens up to discuss and consider. In the UK there has been quite a lot of work done to try to create more access to d/Deaf audiences, visually impaired, those with mobility issues and more recently things such as relaxed performances for neurodiverse people, or to accommodate mental health triggers, or those with tics, etc. Sadly, most of this work is only being done by d/Deaf and disabled artists. A majority of artists still only make work for other people who experience the world exactly as they do. What they are missing is how embedding and investigating the possibilities of creating more access within the work can be a creative stimulus in the process.
JC: I’m really proud of how ‘accessible’ this work is on many levels. I think we tackle some deeply philosophical issues, but I think we’ve found a balance where we explain them pretty straightforwardly and find fun and beautiful ways to let people experience them. In the end I think it feels mostly like just spending an evening with Jess and Claire, and Alva and that we are having interesting conversations, between ourselves and being engaged in each of our bodies and our own sensory experience every night in real and interesting ways.
LP: Something that occurs to me each time I experience the work is the constant shifting of power and play between you, which seems important to our capacity as an audience to think and feel in relationship to two very different bodies and lived experiences, and our own...
CC: I’m really interested by this, where power fluctuates back and forward between performer and audience, and in how it’s not always where one might imagine it is.
I was always interested coming into the research with Jess, a tall, strong normative bodied guy – how I could ever be seen as a threat to him? As a very short disabled woman I have been conditioned quite effectively most of my life to feel less powerful than many around me – especially in terms of physical presence (it sounds very trivial but its genuinely very difficult to feel empowered when you spend most of your life being literally looked down on by the majority of people, hardly ever being on people eye level. And it results in you often being infantilized by many people and also thereby taking on that role in many ways).
But actually it’s interesting, as I realize that if we move away from the idea of threat and more towards ideas of power and control, the way Jess and I work really does play with that often, for example in the scores in the show where I walk on Jess as he lies on the floor. Granted, Jess can move and make me fall, but likewise I can potentially really hurt him if I choose to, the power in that scene really fluctuates back and forward constantly between us.
Through this piece I also began to understand more about ideas of knowledge as power. I had initially felt very ignorant and uneducated beside Jess and Alva. I felt very intimidated by the language they used, by the books they had read, but the process really opened my eyes to understanding that my lived experiences of disability, of gender and those intersections and the lived oppressions they presented throughout my life gave me a knowledge neither of them have. And so I realize that there are places within the show where power in the form of knowledge is really clear, and we try to show the value of these different ways of knowing.
JC: I think this is one of the ways that our differences contribute to an important ongoing research into the practical dynamics of power. Who gets to speak most? Whose story gets foregrounded when? How do we make space for each other to feel equally valued and heard?
By giving attention to the performative phenomenological details of these questions we hopefully expose our own habits and find ways to choose better ones when necessary.
LP: Claire you’ve talked before about how dedicated programmes have been a catalyst for your cultural mobility and empowerment as disabled artist. What is the importance of these initiatives?
CC: My specific degree of “success” as independent artist and disabled artist is directly related not just to being in the UK but in being in Scotland. Our national arts body/funder Creative Scotland chose to go beyond legislation e.g. basic equality and diversity requirements with regard to disability – it chose to invest in them as an area of specific artistic focus and development. It supported the development of artists like myself to research and make work, to pursue bespoke training and to platform that work at home and abroad, because institutional training was and is still not particularly suited to supporting disabled dance artists.
LP: We talk regularly about shifts in Germany, the US, UK and elsewhere over the past decades with regards to the presence and absence of disabled artists in dance. To close this conversation could you say something about the importance of different kinds of artists, aesthetics and experiences alongside the dominant, more prevalent companies, choreographers and dancers.
JC: It has been my privilege to have met and worked with a number of amazing disabled artists in recent years. This is a very rich discourse and practice and it is important that funders, presenters, curators and others are beginning to support more work that includes more physical diversity. I’ve felt somewhat cautious about how to engage in this context as a non-disabled white, cis-male, to not be ‘colonizing’ an identity, status or set of situations that are not mine.
One of the real pleasures of this piece has been its co-production and co- authorship by the two of us. It is exciting and affirming to me that Claire wants to work with me and finds value in the way that I make work, even as her work is being recognized around the world.
On so many axis it is essential that we continue to diversify in meaningful ways the kind of human experience that we get to see represented in our community cultural spaces. The diversity of human experiences is a rich resource for solving so many of our problems today. We have so much work to do, we should be listening to as many voices as possible in our search for the best ways forward.
CC: Everywhere we go we have to ask ourselves who’s not here? Who is not in the room? And ask - Why? I don't want inclusion. I don't want to be “included.” I want equality, relevance and representation. Art should be relevant to society. Society is really, really not made up exclusively of young, skinny (mainly white), normative bodied people. So why are our stages - especially in dance?
Alva talks about this in his work in relation to presence, about absence in relation to presence. He talks about the fact that we can gain certain knowledge from absence, not just what is present to us. In this regard I think - who’s not on the stage and what does their absence tell you?