Changing perceptions step-by-step

World-renowned multi-disciplinary performer, dancer and artist Claire Cunningham started out as a music student at York. Writer Ricky Jones found out what’s behind her extraordinary portfolio of work – and what’s next on her agenda.

Progressive bone disease osteoporosis forced Claire Cunningham to use crutches for the first time at just 14. Struggling to deal with her disability during her teenage years, Claire found the lack of positive role models in the media and society negatively affected her perception.

With age her perspective altered dramatically and she realised how much potential her crutches gave her when it came to performance. Her mentor, American choreographer Jess Curtis, was the first person who showed her the fascination of her own potential for movement and that: “crutches are so interesting from a choreographic perspective”.

Suddenly, her crutches were no longer a “functional tool, an object in society that is associated with quite negative perceptions and limitations”, but rather one of “possibility and play”. Like a juggler in the circus she became an expert in using her tools and her virtuosic talent blossomed.

Taking the roof off

Claire completed a BA in Music at York following a transfer from University College Dublin, where she found her course too theory-based. York offered her the practicality that she wanted and she fondly remembers her involvement in a Japanese Kubuki performance, which flooded the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall. Coupled with a devastating storm, the show literally took the concert hall’s roof off!

Since then, Claire has gone from strength to strength. Her 2009 solo show ME (Mobile/Evolution) was received with much critical acclaim, as was her show Give me a reason to live. This solo performance was part of a series of cultural events in Holland, celebrating the 500-year anniversary of the death of artist Hieronymus Bosch. It was the first time Claire had been invited to take part in a project, as up until this point most of her productions had come from her own initiative, and is a study in the notion of empathy.

Claire is wary about being seen to have an inverse advantage over able-bodied performers. “You have to be aware of the context you are working in. You might be manipulated by society into viewing yourself at an advantage and you have to be savvy in order to flip that. Earlier on in my career I was pushed by my own potential and excitement to discover the most virtuosic things I could do. I am aware of the appeal, I am in a similar camp as the Paralympics in that sense – we have an appeal because it makes people feel better about disability”.

Give me a reason to live relied on an outside stimulus for one of the first times in Claire’s career, differing significantly from her earlier more personal, soul-baring work. “When I made my first piece, Evolution in 2007, people told me that autobiographical is too revealing. I was the opposite. I started making work about myself because I didn’t feel confident to comment on anything outside my experience. Autobiography was a very safe place because I knew about this experience and could comment on it safely.”

Searching for connections

The balance Claire has had to strike is making autobiographical work that is relatable to an audience. Ménage à trois, a show Claire performed in 2012, was about relationships – specifically questioning why she was single.

“There was a certain amount of navel-gazing involved. At the same time I didn’t realise how revealing it was until people come back to me and said, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you told people that’.  A lot of people connected with that work because everyone could relate to those universal feelings of searching for a partner and the difficulty of trying to connect with people.”

Claire’s dancing success has bucked the trend in an art form that is traditionally the most ‘body fascist’ of all, “predominated by young, non-disabled white people. I find that very boring. I do not doubt these dancers – they work very hard – but I’m losing interest in what the choreographers are interested in. For me, art should be something that people can relate to and it should represent society in some way. At the moment we’re only representing a very small band on the stage and it’s not these people who make up the audience – or perhaps it is, unless you create more diversity. I like to look at diversity on stage and I like to see life on stage”.

Claire hopes to take Give me a reason to live to Brighton, Glasgow and the Edinburgh Fringe this year. She has also applied for funding to duet with her mentor of 11 years ago, Jess Curtis, which revolves around the concept of disability perception and how “having a disability can shape how you engage with the world, taking different paths and making different choices.”