The disabled dance maker and PIAF Artist in Residence talks religious experiences and asking the hard questions.

Claire Cunningham wants to ask you a question. Born with osteoporosis, disability has been a major part of the Scottish dancer and choreographer’s life. Far from holding her back, her crutches, which Cunningham has used since she was a teenager, have allowed her to develop a beautifully unique and potently poetic movement language.

Online Editor Maxim Boon finds out how Cunningham’s dance is getting people talking.

You’re going to be the first artist in residence under Wendy Martins’ tenure as PIAF Festival Director. What does a residency like this allow you to do?

One aspect that is particularly important to me is having this amazing opportunity to spend an extended amount of time in one place. I’ll be in Perth for almost a full month and even though Wendy couldn’t have known this when she approached me, this kind of sustained, more thorough exploration is something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last couple of years. Quite often when I tour, it’s these little short trips where you just go in, do the show and go home. Having the chance to share my work is of course a wonderful privilege, but there’s often not much opportunity for engagement with the place that you’re in or the people of that place. So this residency has come at a particularly important moment for me.

How did you discover dance?

I think I can almost say I started dancing by accident, really that’s how it feels. It’s like that Withnail and I quote: “we’ve come on holiday by mistake.” I didn’t have any great aspirations to become a dancer. I was trying to work as a singer, but when I was about 27 years old, I had a mini-quarter life crisis. I was coming up on 30 and nothing was quite where I wanted it to be, so initially I looked into learning new skills to make myself more employable! That might sound a bit mercenary, but at the same time I was beginning to experience this change in my perception of my body – an acceptance that I was going to be using crutches permanently. This wasn’t a defeatist attitude – it was actually a way of getting comfortable with my capabilities. Having a disability effects my range of movement, but it’s also made my body very strong, for example.

Cunningham’s solo piece, Give Me A Reason To Live

As an artist who is disabled and who uses that disability very prominently in your work, how has dance allowed you to communicate your personal experience of the human body?

A really formative moment for me came with one of my first professional jobs, working with a choreographer called Jess Curtis. He came from a world of improvisation that introduced me to a way of movement that wasn’t about how it looked, or about following steps. It’s a model of dancing that’s sensorial, where movement comes from a more internal, psychological process. This was a huge change in the way I thought about my body; exploring how something felt as opposed to how it might look from the outside. It’s kind of a cliché, but this was a genuine epiphany for me. It also helped me realise that a traditional kind of dance training didn’t interest me. I wanted to investigate the potential of my body, as opposed to learning techniques that were developed for a non-disabled aesthetic.

Those qualities are very evident in your work, which asks questions via the movement rather than just being abstract expression. There is a very clear line of communication with the audience about certain issues and preconceptions. What do you feel is the “artist’s” responsibility to educate and challenge an audience?

I think it’s always a responsibility to challenge, but there are different degrees of this. There’s space for things that are entertaining, there has to be – performance should be, in part, about escapism and enjoyment. There also has to be space for a spectrum of tastes; art can be entertaining but I’m not sure that things created for entertainment can always be considered art. That’s not to belittle the need for work that is purely for distraction – absolutely we all need that as well – but sometimes discomfort is important, if for no other reason that it provokes conversation.

You mention discomfort and there is an element of confrontation in your work, where you push yourself physically in pretty extreme ways. How do audiences react to this?

It’s interesting because I personally don’t consider those works confrontational, and ironically it was really in my mind that it shouldn’t be confrontational. The questions I’m asking do have difficult aspects, which can be heavy with political and social challenges. I’d like to think it doesn’t actually go into confrontation, but stays in a place that’s more about making those questions hard to ignore. I’m not interested in alienating people. If anything I hope my work highlights the universality of feeling that we share as human beings, regardless of our physical, or social or national differences. Everyone can relate to being scrutinised and judged in different ways and I hope my work gives everybody the space to go through their own journey and their own thought processes.

The two works you’re showing in Perth, Guide Gods and Give Me A Reason To Live, also have a spiritual undercurrent. Tell me about how religion manifests in your work.

It kind of surprised me; I didn’t really expect to be making work that was influenced by religion. The trigger came in 2013 when I took a trip to Cambodia. I was researching land mines and I was thinking of making a work in response to that because I saw them as objects that created crutches and generated disability. While I was there, there was an interaction that happened that I found very powerful. I met a man who was a teacher in a school for disabled children, he was a disabled man himself – he had a physical impairment from childhood – and he attributed his disability to karma. He was a Buddhist and had also been a Buddhist monk at one point in his life, and two strong ideas came out of our conversation. One was that he hadn’t been allowed to fully become a monk because he was disabled, which really threw me, because I’d never really heard anything like that. And the second thing was this notion that karma – that these cosmic scales trying to give balance to the universe – was responsible for his, and by extension my own, disability. I found that I didn’t know how to engage in a conversation with him about it. 

My immediate reaction was emotional – I felt offended by it, and by the implications that maybe I had been bad in a previous life and therefore I deserved my disability. But this was his unshakable belief, and my instinct was to challenge it and disprove it. This encounter kept persisting in my mind, and I kept coming back to the same question: why was that my instinct? Why was my instinct to challenge it, disprove it? Why was I upset by the implication that it could apply to me when I don’t even believe in karma myself? Fundamentally it’s quite irrational, so it made me very aware of my own ignorance, but I realised that this might be quite a useful thing. I had been in a country that was predominantly Buddhist and that had affected attitudes towards disability in a particular way. But what if we reframed the question with a culture that might historically be Christian or secular? I don’t follow a faith myself, but a huge percentage of the world’s population does and therefore potentially perspectives on disability within those faiths could be very influential on the lives of disabled people in radically different ways. It just felt like something I’d never heard anybody talk about.

You often describe your work as asking questions or having a conversation, and in fact after your shows you will be having conversations with the audience. This idea of art being a catalyst for a conversation is clearly very important. Do you consider performance as an instigator for a more direct, intellectual discussion?

Absolutely, but this is also a new thing for me. It’s been quite a different reason for making work than anything I’d made previously, and it was a surprisingly difficult shift to make. Other pieces I’ve made in the past have felt complete in themselves, but with Guide Gods, for example, the perspective shifts outside myself. It’s no longer so biographical, but about how the work engages on a personal level with other people. It’s a work that doesn’t just exist in a bubble, with a clear beginning and a clear end – it’s a starting point for other ideas and conversations, and initially trying to work out what this piece needed to be was pretty traumatic. My conclusion was a realisation that all I could do was create something that was a spark that might ignite a conversation or illuminate an idea. I didn’t want to make something that was just my opinion anymore. I have a lived experience, and I want to share that, but where that takes someone is really up to them.

Claire Cunningham, PIAF 2016 Artist in Residence, presents, Guide Gods, February 11 – 12 and Give Me A Reason To Live, March 2 – 3.

Give Me A Reason To Live tours to the Festival of Live Art in Melbourne, at North Melbourne Town Hall, March 9 – 11.