Choreographer and performer Claire Cunningham tells Paul F Cockburn how her new work melds movement and words to discuss religious attitudes to disability.
Most artists are reluctant to suggest where they get their ideas from, but Claire Cunningham is quite clear about the initial ‘spark’ of inspiration for Guide Gods.
“I was in Cambodia last year, researching another piece about the people who work around land mines, and also disability generally in Cambodia—it has one of the highest number of disabled people per head of population. While I was there, I met a teacher in a school for disabled children, who was disabled himself—he had polio as a child. He talked about relating his disability to karma, and to the idea that something bad he’d done in a previous life was the cause and effect as to why he was disabled in this life.
“While I had encountered that idea in a kind of vague way—like the Glenn Hoddle thing in 1999, when I was about 13—I hadn’t encountered it in terms of somebody literally in front of me believing in that. I didn’t know how to engage with him on that belief. I couldn’t disprove it, which was my intuition—and the fact that my instinct was to argue, challenge or disprove his belief also showed me something about where I was coming from."
“So when I came back to Scotland I began to think about where I was coming from, where that opinion had formed, and also reflecting on how my opinions around disability have come from what I feel is quite a secular society—based within the disability rights movement and an understanding of the social model of disability, things that aren’t related to a religious belief system."
"It made me realise that I didn’t know how other religions viewed disability—and whether there was anything within religions that are actually perpetuating discrimination. As someone who doesn’t follow a faith or believe in God, who in the course of their life has distanced themselves further and further from people who do, I realised I really didn’t know people who engaged in any sort of belief—and that, in itself, was maybe a reason to engage with people I didn’t know."
Most of Claire’s work can be described as semi-autobiographical.
“I’ve really just ploughed inwards most of the time, sorting out my own issues by making the work—it’s my way of processing things—though I like to think that I’m still looking at things which are quite universal. This was a conscious challenge; to consciously make myself go and engage with people that I normally wouldn’t have met.”
Finding the right people to talk with was one challenge; finding herself on the other side of a digital recorder was another:
“Not being a journalist, I’m not experienced at interviewing people and editing what they say; I realise now I was quite naive, as it was a real challenge even to get the material down to a scale that was manageable. It was so hard; I found every single person I spoke—and all of the things they said—interesting. How could I capture their warmth and character? But I always knew that I wanted to include the voices of the people I spoke to; that those voices would be within the show.”
Quite apart from including these ‘other voices’, Guide Gods differs most obviously from Claire’s previous major work, Ménage à Trois, in being performed ‘in the round’, with the audience seated all around the performance space.
“Ménage à Trois literally had a fourth wall [a fine curtain on which were projected various graphics and patterns] and was the first time I’d performed something where I didn’t engage with the audience. It was interesting to have the encompassing world that Ménage à Trois offered; I was insulated in that world, and not distracted by the audience. Yet what it also told me was that I didn’t want to do it again; that I actually liked the engagement and connection with the audience. And so there’s a degree to which Guide Gods is a reaction to that.”
That said, Claire’s never before worked in spaces where the audience is so close that she’ll be able to feel them breathing!
“Quite early on, I knew that I didn’t want to make something that was a proscenium arch show; I didn’t want to recreate the notion of being someone elevated, preaching at a congregation. It’s pretty much in the round, because there’s that idea of everybody having a different perspective; that, wherever you sit, you’ll see a different picture. But also, one of the early things that I felt I was hearing from people about religion—or maybe this was just my interpretation—was that it was about wanting to belong. Where I might find a community within the arts and disabled artists, some people found a community—a shared experience, a shared understanding—through religion. So I wanted to create a space that created a community for a night and where everybody was equal."
“I think it’s a step in a different direction,” Claire says when asked how Guide Gods differs from Ménage à Trois.
“Everything is about pushing practice, for me. Each show is kind of addressing something in my own life; I do consciously, when I’m thinking what the next thing will be, is ask how I can use it to push me as an artist. This was a conscious choice: to reach out to people and look at their stories. Yet, inevitably, it still has to come back to me—it’s being filtered through me, embedded in the way I make work, and processed through what it’s done to me. I think that’s a strand through the piece; what do those encounters mean in terms of my own journey? What questions does it raise of me?”
Guide Gods is being performed at various venues in Glasgow, 12-20 June; for more information, check Claire’s website: www.clairecunningham.co.uk.