Review: The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre

Open, tactile, dynamic, strong, gentle. Mobile. Moving. These are only a couple of words that were on my mind while watching The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight, a piece devised and performed by leading UK disability artist Claire Cunningham and international choreographer Jess Curtis.

From the very beginning it is apparent that this will be a special experience: for those of us who have a stage ticket, we are immediately greeted by the smiling duo, who tell us that if we choose to sit on the cushions or chairs in the performance area we might get into physical contact with them. This openness and clarity is carried throughout the evening, and so we feel not only well-informed and comfortable, but welcome as well.

As Cunningham’s and Curtis’ bodies entwine on the floor, supporting each other, Curtis’ voiceover echoes our deepest concerns: does this hurt either performer? What would happen if something went wrong? The physical sequences, after all, do require incredible strength, stamina, and focus.

Similarly to the way they balance each others bodies with care, Cunningham and Curtis find a well-balanced tone to deliver their thoughts on complex and philosophical topics. Their conversational approach allows all spectators to engage and relate; due to their down-to-earth, almost confessional manner they successfully avoid the dangers of patronising or alienating their audience. In fact the piece never really felt like it was preaching at us, apart from perhaps towards the end, when I personally found philosopher Dr Alva Noë’s academic language rather distracting from a very intimate moment between a waltzing Cunningham and Curtis: at this point I would have appreciated a little silence to let this touching, pure moment take the spotlight. Cunningham dances with her crutches in a beautiful way, and Curtis’ attention and presence is very gripping.

With BSL interpretation and surtitles the piece speaks through several channels. It features dance, movement, spoken word, singing, sound and video art. But it is also a lecture, a confession, therapy, and a gathering. Above all else, it is honest: and when Cunningham’s feet gently land on the audience members, and one spectator fails to support her weight for a second, they both smile it off and carry on with Cunningham leaving her with a subtle half-embrace. This moment of interaction summed up the essence of the piece for me: I saw the ability to fail and to succeed, the ability to take risks and to discuss bodies, genders, anger, pain, happiness and love.

The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight is playing at the Royal Festival Hall until September 7.