Claire Cunningham’s latest work is stripped of theatrical props, but certainly not impact. Review of a performance at The Tramway, Glasgow by Paul F Cockburn
Unlike Claire Cunningham’s delicate, on occasions audience-interactive, Guide Gods – in which she worked with numerous tea cups, saucers and a hostess trolley within a specifically designed performance space, Give Me A Reason to Live sees her choreography and performance stripped back to its raw fundamentals, creating a brief burst of humanity amid the cosmic darkness.
More: given how dance is an art form usually so focused on speed and fluidity of movement, the power of her latest work undoubtedly lies in its repeated stillnesses, its achingly slow shifts from one difficult position to another, and those contrasting moments of juddering which give a physical expression to her self-consciously rasping breathing.
Starting in total darkness, we first become aware of Cunningham’s voice, as she sings repeated single notes, part moan, part lament for some unspeakable horror. Then, as a slender shard of light slowly appears, we see her – stuck in the far right corner, garbed in simple loose grey clothes, hooped over her crutches – and slowly attempting to move, to escape, backing slowly, though not directly, towards the audience.
From the programme notes, we’re told that the twin inspirations of this work are the paintings of Heironymous Bosch, in which contorted and physically ugly and disabled beggars were emblematic of sin, and the Nazis’ first Holocaust – the Aktion T4 euthanasia programme which killed thousands of Germans of all ages with physical, sensory or learning impairments.
Both are emotive subjects, and Cunningham makes no concession to mainstream ideas of beauty, symmetry or perfection. This work is a defiant celebration of disabled people’s physicality and right to life, no matter how “ungainly” others might see them – played out through a uniquely personal choreography requiring spectacular strength and balance as she holds numerous airborne positions on the crutches that form a vital part of her physical being.
And yet, most harrowing, is the point when there’s hardly any movement at all, as Cunningham – finally standing in front of the audience, but not looking them in the eye – slowly strips down to just vest and pants, echoing the frightened, stripped victims of horrific Nazi scientific experimentation.
Vulnerable, frightened, and yet standing strong, there is only the increasing sound of her breath as she slowly raises her eyes. This is not so much choreography as an act of personal defiance, and it lingers long in the mind.
And then Cunningham turns, reaching for the fading light, to the rear of the performance space where, pinned against the wall on her extended crutches, Cunningham haltingly sings a verse from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden, a cantata based on a Lutheran hymn.
As Zoë Irvine’s subtle soundscape slowly fades again to silence, and Cunningham vanishes once again into darkness, the audience is reminded how death is always with us, and that life – all life – is, as a result, all the more precious.
Such is the power of this work that the audience initially appeared reluctant to applaud; but it did, and with good reason.