Claire Cunningham makes work based on honing skills specifically created by her physical impairment and looking at perceived limitations as advantages. Nina Mühlemann was there to see this production created with choreographer/video artist Gail Sneddon at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Southbank's Women of the World festival on 6 March.
The first time I saw Claire Cunningham’s dance performance piece Ménage à Trois during the Unlimited festival, I found it hard to digest. It addressed feelings of loneliness, internalized oppression and ableist presumptions in a brutally honest way. I felt sad and ashamed because I could relate to those feelings, but tend to suppress those memories. Now, as part of the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre, I got the chance to see this stunning piece of work again and to reflect on the emotions it evokes.
Ménage à Trois follows Cunningham’s character, a lonely young single woman, who is desperate for someone to lift her up, to touch her, other than the crutches she uses to get around. ‘Sometimes I feel like a machine. I forget I was made to touch.’ She is yearning for a partner who she can fully envision in her imagination: ‘You would not have a mullet. You would not eat mackerel and expect me to kiss you. You would not be disabled,’ she says, imagining a man who would release her from her isolation.
She then builds a dancing partner from her crutches, and through dance this partner comes to life. Christopher Owen, who plays the role of Cunningham’s boyfriend mirrors her movements perfectly as she dances with the ‘crutch man’, until he and the crutch figure become one. We follow the new couple into scenes of domestic bliss and romantic dinners of the sort that Cunningham’s character has despised during periods of loneliness.
There is a slightly eerie feeling to those scenes. They seem too good to be true and, like her lover, have come out of nowhere. Finally, Cunningham’s character voices this uneasiness she feels about the relationship. She dreamt a man into life who is too flawless to be true, and she despairs because she, and her disabled body, can never be a match for such perfection. She feels inferior, but also acknowledges that this feeling comes from her own insecurities, from loneliness, isolation and the difficulties she has to accept herself.
The story is about two relationships: the one between Claire Cunningham’s character and the boyfriend, and the one between her and her crutches. Throughout the performance, it becomes clear that both are fully intertwined with each other, and the attempt to replace one with the other fails.
Cunningham’s NHS crutches figure as various props within the piece: as a partner, but also as machine guns in a videogame called ‘couple killer’, where Cunningham’s character tries to shoot video projections of happy couples; as flowers her lover tries to give to her; and as spiky jewellery around Cunningham’s neck to keep her lover from getting too close.
The crutches are used in novel ways that erase the stigma attached to them, and it makes me marvel at their versatility and functionality. The set is quite bare, otherwise, but the use of the crutches creates a detailed scene of imagination. Similarly, two thin curtains, one behind the actors and one in front of them, have video and light projected on to them, providing a multi-dimensional quality which brings various scenes and places into life.
The music, a score and an aria, sung live by Cunningham who is a trained opera singer, add another layer and an interesting contrast to the modernity of the visuals. Overall, the piece has an almost overwhelming audio-visual richness.
Ménage à Trois is the third piece that Cunningham created, and the first one where she has partnered with co-director and video designer Gail Sneddon. During the Q and A that Cunningham explains that, when she started incorporating her crutches into her dance work, she spent months experimenting and studying mechanics and physics to explore the unique movement possibilities that her crutches and her body offer. She also explains that the inspiration for the piece was a time during her teenage years that she spent isolated and trapped because she had internalized the ableist worldview that she was fed by the media.
Those feelings are portrayed in Ménage à Trois with accuracy and a painful honesty. It was a fantastic piece to show during the WOW festival, as it does not only address the ableist rhetoric that is often adopted when we talk about issues of gender and sexuality, but it also reflects on misogynist assumptions about femininity, often internalized by women themselves. Ménage à Trois is an utterly fascinating piece because it makes us go to an uncomfortable place but at the same time is full of grace and beauty.