By testing her own strength, Claire Cunningham has created a compelling new show about stigma, fear, and the search for compassion, writes David Pollock
If part of the purpose of art is to take you inside the experience of another and show you something of how they live their life, there can be few more essential shows in this respect on the Fringe than Claire Cunningham’s Give Me a Reason to Live. Essential, that is, and timely, for Cunningham’s dance performance is designed to invite understanding where otherwise we might feel none, or where our emotions might be rubbed down to a callus and numbed by an onslaught of media apathy.
“I’ll be reassessed for my disability living allowance at some point this year,” says Cunningham, who uses crutches in her life and her work as a result of the osteoporosis which impairs her physically. “As a disabled person you’re required to try and prove how capable you are in life, to prove how independent you are and what you can do, but you’re also being tested on what you can’t do to get the financial support you need.
“It’s an emotionally and psychologically difficult place for people to exist, where you have to show your failings to other people. For this piece I’m choosing to show where my body’s limitations are, whereas up until now as a performer I’ve tried to show my capabilities and to a degree virtuosity.”
Originally from Kilmarnock, musically trained in Dublin and York, and now based in Glasgow, Cunningham was a singer who turned to aerial training.
Contracted to do a piece of aerial dance work which required a disabled performer in 2004, she fell in love with the concept of dance, of exploring what her body could and couldn’t do. Her pieces have included the ensemble work 12 at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, the biographical piece Evolution, and Menage a Trois, her National Theatre of Scotland-produced study of love and disability.
“I started dancing almost mathematically, I guess,” she says. “It was like physics; if I put my weight here, what does this do? if I shift my balance there… it was based in curiosity, which it still is, but initially it was very much the physics of me and these two metal poles, and weight and balance and torsion and torque. Literally experimenting with how they moved me and how I moved them.
“Eventually they went beyond simply being crutches and shifted into other meanings. My relationship with them changed as I began to accept them more as an extension of my body, and their movement became more organic as well.”
This sense of testing carries on most emphatically into Give Me a Reason to Live, although the work’s origins were the least personal to her at first. Ahead of the 500th anniversary of the painter Hieronymus Bosch’s death in 2016, she was asked by the Dance Umbrella festival in London to join a team of five dancers from five European cities which display Bosch’s paintings in responding to his work. The process involved visiting each city and discovering more about the work.
“One of the first lectures we were given was by an academic who specialised in sketches from Bosch’s studio,” she recalls. “He showed us a sketch that was all these studies of beggars, all different figures who were crippled. That was the only job opportunity for the disabled then. I was fascinated, this really caught me. We also heard about the 15th century tipping into the 16th – the time of the witch trials and the Inquisition, when there was a lot of fear across Europe, being spread on purpose.”
The shift in perspective towards disabled people during this period also chimed with her. “People previously treated beggars with a bit of compassion, because maybe it could be Jesus, you know? Something really shifted in this era and it became more about them being bad people and greedy and undeserving. It felt a bit too familiar to me to hear that right now, with the government and a lot of the media portraying disabled people as being undeserving or scroungers.
“I began to see that there’s this cycle whenever we’re all worried and there’s a climate of fear, people turn on the most vulnerable. We’re looking for people to blame – poor, unemployed, anybody that’s from another country, travellers. Anybody that’s not at the top of the ladder or is ‘other’ in any kind of way.”
The Christianity of Bosch’s work resonated, too; the sense of judgment looming. And she thought of another subject which holds a grim fascination, and which she hopes to explore in future work – the Nazis’ Action T4 program, which saw the disabled and the terminally ill put to death in a precursor to the Jewish Holocaust. Again – judgment, box-ticking, selection of the weakest for special measures.
Returning to the religious aspect, she had recently worked with people of the Islamic faith, and she was struck by how they viewed disability as a test from God. So this show is a test. She dances, she sings, but she also puts her body through the wringer.
“The reality is that I can’t stand for long,” she says, “so I show what happens to me if I try to stand for a long time. It’s clear throughout the work that the actions I’m choosing to do are either physically strenuous or I’m doing them for as long as I can.
“What is it to watch another human being in a struggle with something that’s clearly hard for them? What is it about that perception of a body you see as perhaps more fragile than it actually is, if you see it doing these things? Perhaps there’s a strength and a stamina in that body that may be hidden.
“But the things I would usually try to hide in order to be taken seriously or respected as an independent, strong woman, to actually show those publically…”
In this combination of strength and fragility lies her hope for a simple human emotion. “It’s a question of empathy,” says Cunningham. “What is it to provoke empathy? Do you have to watch someone struggle? Does that create a connection, a desire to help or to stop or to support?
“For me, within those religious paintings, the manipulation of that is very vivid. It fascinated me. The idea of testing a body to its limits resonates with the judgment of good and evil, and the trials which might send a human to heaven or to hell.”
Claire Cunningham’s Give Me a Reason To Live is at Dance Base, Edinburgh, until 29 August (Friday to Sunday only) 3pm / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 11 August 2015
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