Claire Cunningham never thought of herself as “disabled”. The 38-year-old Glaswegian admits she didn’t even want to associate with “disabled” people, thanks to mainstream media’s bias towards able-bodied superiority.
Today, the dancer and choreographer is challenging society’s perceptions of not just disability, but dance, too.
Due to osteoporosis, the classically trained singer has suffered from chronic broken bones in her legs for most of her life, and relied on crutches since age 14. Working with musicians, drag artists and circus performers under the tutelage of American choreographer Jess Curtis, she was pleasantly surprised to learn that dance didn’t need to involve self-flagellation.
Cunningham has spent the past decade touring the world as a professional dancer, crutches on stage and all. Her performances have been described by The Guardian as “thoughtful and deeply felt” and as “unique and completely beautiful” by The Scotsman. In February she made her Australian debut at PIAF.
“I came into dance quite naïve,” she says of the brutal training regime. “Some dancers have quite a fascist notion about their bodies in terms of what they put themselves through. In ballet, they are trying to cultivate an ideal of beauty that is the opposite of what they are doing to their bodies.”
Cunningham believes most people wrongly connect dance and disability with a form of therapy designed to improve mobility and social engagement. Disabled dance is also often associated with community projects that have little in common with professional shows, artistic merit or accomplishment.
“If audiences only see people learning in community projects, then they will have low expectations of what is possible,” she says. “Instead, programmers should give audiences a chance to engage with a broader variety of performance. Artists in marginalised sectors need opportunities to grow their experience.”
A regular traveller, Cunningham has become accustomed to bewildered reactions from those unfamiliar with disabled dancing. In most cases, she says, showing people a video of her performing is usually enough to change opinions.
“I’m mostly greeted with curiosity about what dance by a disabled person is and that’s really healthy,” she says.
“People are generally curious and open. The difficulty can be with the gatekeepers of public opinion who want to put disabled dance in a particular box, but dance is about the body and not just about specific virtuosity.”
Fittingly, strength and fragility are issues regularly tackled by Cunningham. In Guide Gods, she danced on top of teacups – literally – before inviting audience members to stay after the show for a cuppa and a chat.
“A china teacup is fragile in one position, but it becomes very strong when it is placed in another,” she says. “There is that contradiction about how those two things can coexist, but that is an inherent part of disability.”
Another topic Cunningham explores is religious attitudes towards disability, in particular, the misconception that disabled people need to be saved. “My experience with religion was mostly the odd occasion of people offering to pray for me, which is loaded with the notion that I must need to be fixed,” she says.
Although these themes are central to both Guide Gods and her second show, Give Me a Reason to Live, she stresses she doesn’t want to judge religion, but rather provoke conversation.
“People make a presumption that my life is not good, based on a visual profile of me,” she says. “I want people of faith to come along to my shows and not feel ambushed. An important aspect of my work is keeping people together.”