Breaking the Circle
Claire Cunningham on being a self-identifying disabled artist
Scotswoman Claire Cunningham, born 1977, is a performer, choreographer and trained singer who regularly works with American choreographer Jess Curtis. In July, they will be showing the first stages of research for their new duet and teaching a workshop open to dancers of differing abilities at Tanzfabrik Berlin. Claire Cunningham has the medical condition osteoporosis and has been using crutches since age 14. She is very outspoken about her impairment and has become a role model for disabled artists – besides being an internationally renowned artist. Claire has a good sense of humor as the oft-interrupted Skype call from a Basel festival to a Berlin flat on a late Sunday morning proved.
Claire, how did you find your way into dance?
It was by accident actually. I had seen a few dance pieces before, by Candoco Dance Company or Bill Shannon, and thought they were brilliant; but I was a singer and it didn’t occur to me to dance. But since I wasn’t earning a living as a singer, I wanted to be more versatile as a performer, so I took a few theatre courses and looked into aerial work. In 2004, I saw an ad: The Blue Eyed Soul Dance Company was looking for disabled dancers. I ignored the fact that they were looking for dancers explicitly and auditioned. The dance class in the audition left me completely befuddled – but I muddled my way through it and eventually got hired. Jess Curtis was the choreographer of the ensuing piece and his conceptual approach to dance startled me. We were not following steps… we had to rely on our senses and our mind.
What was and is important in your cooperation with Jess Curtis?
Jess was very clever and subtle in the way he caught my interest in how I could move. I hadn’t realized before that I had a very special way of moving when carrying something or when balancing on my crutches while resting. Jess began to tease that specificity of movement out of me and kindled my curiosity, creating the space for taking time to find one’s individual vocabulary. My coming into dance was an unusual, fortunate track. Back in Scotland, I had no one to dance with, I wasn’t familiar with the dance scene at all. Funding from Creative Scotland allowed me to explore my possibilities in dance, take time to train with mentors such as Bill Shannon and to spend a lot of time in the studio alone – in privacy, without the sense of comparison with non-disabled dancers. That was vital for my development. Jess had introduced me to Contact Improvisation and I created a way of Contact with my crutches, as if we were three people dancing together, playing with the idea of giving weight and support. I developed a sensory understanding of and organic relationship with these objects that have informed my performances since.
How did you transform into a choreographer?
Again it was Jess’s influence, hiring me for his company Gravity in 2007, working in a very open way that was both overwhelming and exciting. This environment made me realize that I had original ideas I could contribute. In 2007, with my first solo, "evolution", I had the ideas, but still not the skills to realize them, and Jess helped me to develop my ideas in space – working with me on my second solo "mobile" the following year.
You have been working continually as a choreographer since 2007. How is the funding situation/infrastructure for disabled dancers in the UK?
Scotland is special since it took a choice to lead the way. Creative Scotland, our Arts Council, has long been engaged in supporting disabled artists. In the UK there are possibilities for disabled artists, too, in terms of access to the arts; still not ideal, but previous generations of Disability Rights’ Campaigners fought for more visibility. There is an understanding that you have to have role models in order to break the circle and to encourage persons with impairments to consider the arts as a possibility. With the Olympics 2012 there was a big shift in the Arts policy. Whoever hosts the Olympics has to host the Paralympics, as well as a cultural program. Thus the Government, the UK Arts Councils and the Olympics set up the probably biggest amount of funding there ever was for disabled artists. The Arts Councils even decided to continue their Unlimited Commissions funding program; it is hosted by the London Southbank Center every two years. Jess and I’s duet is a commission from Unlimited.
You are calling yourself a "self-identifying disabled artist". What do you mean by that?
At some point I began to recognize that I wouldn’t make the work I do if I hadn’t been using crutches since my youth. I wanted to take ownership of that rather than being identified by others. My impairment is a positive thing for me, it is the root of my creativity, a really important aspect of who I am. It is also important to recognize being impaired as a valid state of being in the world. I would like to see more dance works with all states of diversity in the future, not only very skinny twenty year old white dancers but all different types of sex, race, age or height.
What are your plans for the upcoming duet and workshop at Tanzfabrik?
Both we are interested in the idea of perception. Jess is working on his PhD and has a more theoretical approach than I do, but his interest is still rooted in the body/bodies. My interest is the lived experience of disability and how it shapes one’s behavior, how it affects one’s moving through the environment. I for example have a special relationship to the ground, I watch it more than looking around, with a heightened sense of awareness. Foremost, Jess and I want to create a space where people feel welcome and where they feel they do not have to conform to the subliminal abilism that is active in society. We want to make them confident in their own ways of moving.
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