★★★☆☆ A thought-provoking and gently sophisticated investigation into the impact of religion on the disabled.

Victoria Hall, Fremantle
February 12, 2016

It’s a well-known adage: “Never talk about politics or religion,” and the topic of “disability” could surely also be included among those prickly subjects, too loaded with semantic complexities and opportunities to offend to be successfully navigated. However, disabled dance artist Claire Cunningham’s gently sophisticated documentary on the influence religion has over perceptions of physical disability, Guide Gods, achieves a surprising feat: a thought-provoking examination of prejudice that is, somehow, simultaneously uplifting.

It’s not an easy task to defang a topic as divisive as religion, and some of the details of Cunningham’s research are, at face value, confronting. A former Buddhist monk, defrocked for being disabled, claims his disability is a karmic repercussion of wrongdoing in a previous life; deaf Muslims are told not to pray because their disability guarantees entry into paradise; evangelical Christians pray for cures instead of accepting the disabled as fellow human beings. Where disability is concerned, religion is polarising: it is either divine or demonic. But Cunningham’s searching and insightful study is no grim sermon. It infuses this delicate subject matter with a playful spirit, taking these imposing concepts and shrinking them to a far more approachable scale.

Cunningham has considered the way her audience engage with this work on several levels, weaving in subtle references to both the idiosyncratic strangeness of religion and the social equality that this show promotes. It’s a quietly clever microcosm of the world Cunningham explores through her mercurial mix of dance, song, spoken word, recorded interviews and music.

As the audience enter the Victoria Hall in Fremantle, we are asked to remove our shoes and socks. Most comply immediately while some quickly ask to be exempted. There is a sense of ritual about this act, but also an intriguing implication of discourse: a division between those excited by this barefooted quirk, and those who are resistant.

Passing through an archway constructed of crutches, we enter a cosy performance space with a tactile, inviting quality. Performed in the round, there are seats or cushions to sit on, allowing the freedom to choose how and where we will experience this performance. Immediately Cunningham evokes a wry, endearingly self-effacing humour, transforming the audio-description soundtrack for blind attendees into the voice of a softly spoken, disembodied deity (complete with reassuringly genial Scottish brogue).

Claire Cunningham

Throughout Guide Gods, the tone is welcoming and humble, much like the teacups which become a central metaphor within this piece, representing both the countless cuppas Cunningham shared with interviewees during her research and the unifying similarities we all share regardless of creed or upbringing. As Cunningham notes, “Who doesn’t like a nice cup of tea?” There is also a clear statement about perceptions of the disabled that seeks to challenge us. Cunningham’s choreography is deliberately at odds with her physical limitations. She shows visible signs of struggle – a quivering hand, an awkwardly twisted torso, an unsteady gait – and this conscious display of vulnerability evokes the patronising pity repeatedly cited during Cunningham’s interviews as the nucleaus of religion’s relationship to the disabled.

These moments of physical constraint are contrasted with sections of more assured choreography, where Cunningham nimbly traverses the space with graceful, agile sweeps, using her crutches to achieve a vocabulary of movement that is surprisingly skilful and entirely unique. However, those hoping for a more virtuosic display of dance may be disappointed by this show, and occasionally the pace is stalled by a heavy reliance on pre-recorded interviews. What Guide Gods accomplishes on a visceral and intellectual level goes someway towards enhancing the impact of its visual elements, but this is a show more about thought than it is about action.

Cunningham reaches a personal conclusion, but doesn’t impose an opinion; she wants us to take this information and reach our own understanding of it, knowing that how an individual assimilates this show will be intensely personal. As the piece concludes, I notice a few people in the audience are crying, visibly touched by Cunningham’s open-hearted, plainspoken thesis. Guide Gods does indeed inspire a very palpable sense of catharsis and in a fitting way, there is something a bit miraculous about this show: a beautiful inversion that transforms this discussion about discrimination into one about acceptance.

Perth International Arts Festival present Clarie Cunningham’s Guide Gods, until February 21.

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