Claire Cunningham Dances To Her Own Song

Leroy - Posted on 14 January 2014

Leroy Moore/Clair Cunningham

(Photo by Sven Hagolani)

Krip-Hop Nation (KHN) I’m so excited to interview you, Claire, and have been following your work for years. I’m just going to come out in say it you are the only woman on crutches that do what you do.

Clair Cunningham: Cheers Leroy! That’s incredibly flattering.

KHN: Now you started as a classical singer tell us how did that turn into dancing and do you still sing?

Clair Cunningham: I always wanted to be a singer – from a very young age, and trained my voice from the age of 14 then went on to study music at University with the intention of becoming a classical singer. Like any business its really who you know more that what you know, and after I graduated I couldn’t work out how to actually WORK as a classical singer, I had the singing skills but not the freelancing artist skills at that time. I also had a thought at the back of my mind after leaving Uni that I wanted to encourage other disabled people to consider the arts as a career. Really as a career and not as ‘therapy’ or only a leisure activity – as was often the association with disabled people and arts…. although I had had very little experience of other disabled people. I very much grew up thinking myself as not disabled and not wanting to associate with disabled people. Very much a victim of the media brainwashing/ablest perspective…. Anyway, I found an organization in Glasgow, at that time called Sounds of Progress (now renamed Limelight), where I had moved back to after uni and they specialized in training disabled people as musicians and created professional music theatre productions with the individuals good enough to work at professional level and to platform those people to audiences. I was hired by them initially as a singer, and then joined as an admin assistant in the office. I was there for 6 and a half years, working part-time in the administration – learning all the basics of arts administration and project management and also becoming aware – through being invited to disability equality panels – about the situation and rights of disabled people and artists, and beginning to define my own views about this. With Sounds of Progress I still worked occasionally as a singer and through their theatre productions I gained a real grounding in basic stagecraft – which has been vital to me in subsequent years.

KHN: You know about my work tell in your from your point of view why still today there are a lack of women with disabilities dancing especially breakdancing?

Clair Cunningham: I keep thinking there must be other women out there doing what I’m doing but to be honest I’m still not encountering them. I find it interesting that I hear or see more men dancing on crutches – and mostly coming from the breakdance/hop hop culture. There is a young woman up and coming from Brazil – Mickaella Dantes who is a very beautiful dancer using crutches, I’m not certain if she is making work yet but I’m sure it won’t be long….I think I need to watch my back!

KHN: Please explain in your own words what do you call your style of dancing?

Clair Cunningham: I don’t call it anything specific. I haven’t named it in the sense that Bill (Shannon) named his Shannon Technique, as I haven’t defined it and honed it to the degree that Bill has. I would simply say I have developed a vocabulary of movement that is specific to my own physicality and to my understanding and knowledge of using crutches. Sometimes as a joke I do call it Cunningham technique- alluding to the existing and famous (Merce) Cunningham technique. I sometimes have a mischievous desire to run classes labeled as Cunningham technique – to which people would come expecting to do Merce Cunningham vocabulary, but actually give them all crutches – would be a bit unfair but quite funny perhaps to see the confusion on their faces!

KHN: We all know that you are from the UK however you travel does other dancers excites you and if so who and why?

Clair Cunningham: I was very pleased to meet and work with 2 dancers from Brazil that I met through making the work for Candoco. Edu O (Edu Oliviera) who is very well known within Brazil, from Salvador, as a very experienced disabled artist who has very much carved his own career and path. Also Mickaella Dantas – a young woman who dances using crutches. She is currently working in Portugal but I was really excited by her energy and drive and her knowledge of working with her crutches that is very specific to her. I was also fascinated for years by Lisa Buffano – I had really hoped one day to meet her and to, perhaps if she had been interested, to work with her. Her interest in working outward from her prosthetics and marrying that to her artistic vision was something I felt I related to, as was the spatial relationship of the fact that when she worked on the extended prosthetics and explored the more ‘spiderlike’ quality it offered I felt quite a strong link to the way I work on the crutches. It is a huge and incredibly sad loss to the arts in general and to disability arts that Lisa is no longer with us.

Obviously Bill (Shannon) will always be an important person to me for the fascination he provoked in me early on and the ideas he opened up to me regarding the possibility of working with the crutches – he could see possibilities of working with them that no other artist could and so really pushed me, which was vital. He also taught me to fall – which was a valuable lesson – in dance and life in general!

I have to mentioned that in terms of dance – the person that made me want to dance as a kid was Michael Jackson! It wasn’t seeing ballet or contemporary dance – not that I saw much of it, but it didn’t inspire me – whereas I locked myself in the living room for an entire day when Thriller came out trying to learn the dance. Likewise Fame (the TV series) had a similar effect. Somehow it didn’t matter that I physically couldn’t do these dances – my body could not recreate the movements by Jackson or the Fame cast – but there was something about the infectiousness of the dance, the love of dancing that I think transmitted and that was more unifying to me….
Lisa LeCavelier….
Annie Hanauer…

KHN: Being a person with a disability and a dancer how do you deal with ageing with a disability in your art?

Hmmm…well that I guess is something about which I tend to bury my head in the sand a lot and ignore….I have to acknowledge that I have a condition (Osteoporosis) that is a deteriorating condition. In my body will deteriorate and become more fragile. However I tend to ignore that at present and work with the body I have. I would like to think that my attitude towards working to the full capacity of the body that I have will be a philosophy that I can continue to embody as I get older and not grow frustrated and bitter if and when my body can no longer do what it once did. I mean, this is a natural state, but it is very sad when dancers think that because their body no longer does what it once did, then it is no longer valid, it no longer fits the aesthetic. This is the main problem. The aesthetic needs to move and evolve to acknowledge that dance needs to be about all bodies and not simply young seemingly ‘perfect’ bodies. From a practical perspective it I suspect that I may move more into teaching, lecturing, advocacy work, actually I would like to and hope to do that more, as I get older and my body perhaps –regardless of disability – becomes less strong and my energy/stamina perhaps becomes less. Which is also I think just a natural desire to want to slow down a bit as we get older…

KHN: Have you done shows that your disability i.e. your crutches are not the main focus?

Clair Cunningham: I’d like to think that they are never the MAIN focus! Hopefully I am a little more interesting….! But they have definitely been predominant in shaping the work, ideas and the choreography. For me they are the tools through which I engage artistically with the world quite often. Not exclusively, but they sometimes give me a different slant of looking at something (e.g. build a mobile out of crutches, turn them into a puppet) or adapting something (e.g. adapt ballet repertory onto 4 crutches). I am gradually moving further away from being so engrossed in them but they will also be a necessary element as I literally need them in my life. I’m not going to apologize for them and for the role within my work that they have – they are my tools, my specialism. It would be like saying – hmm Anthony Gormley, when he going to stop doing stuff around the human figure. He works from a similar basis in many projects but the context makes the (seemingly) same image profoundly different each time. I think the piece I am working on right now is one in which they are taking a lesser role though they are still paramount to crafting what the vocabulary is, and my status/reality as a disabled person is also integral to the work and therefore so are they. I will probably at some point look at working, in some way without them – I can walk a bit without them, and I am constantly – like Bill Shannon – dealing with people thinking I don’t need them. Its so fascinating how angry people (by this I mostly mean non-disabled people) get, that they feel they are being fooled, but they don’t get as angry about non-disabled actors pretending to be disabled….! Anyway, I will probably look at working in some way in a piece without them, purely because its becoming a question artistically and physically – who am I and how do I move without them? What is this grey area?

KHN: What do you think when you hear other artists that are women, disabled, of color, queer who say “that I want to be an artist first?"

Clair Cunningham: I think that’s fine. Each to their own I say. I understand totally wanting to be an artist first and foremost – I think the drive that it requires is something you have to keep believing in. Also, being an artist is a choice, the other states –color, sexuality and disability – these are not choices. It IS a choice if and to what degree you embrace it as part of your identity, but choosing to be an artist is a hard thing and you need an enormous amount of passion for it. I think its right that it should be the biggest thing. It is a choice and our choices should be the things that really define us. I think we each have to choose to what degree we embrace the other aspects of our identity – and to what degree we deal with when others are choosing it for us, and we shouldn’t guilt trip people who don’t want to put that aspect first. That also must be a choice and we should respect it in each other. I also think that we need not define ourselves in only one way, and in that one way in every context. Context is vital. It depends what the context is and how you want to be viewed. I can on some occasions introduce myself as an artist. Or a performing artist. Or a theatre maker. Or a dancer. Or a singer. Or a choreographer. Or a woman. Or a disabled artist. Or a self-identifying disabled artist. Or a white middle class small single straight Scottish person. Or any combination of the above. Or none. There are many hats we can wear in different places and we can choose what to wear and not always have it dictated to us.

KHN: Back to breakdancing. Do you still do it and I know you know of Bill Shannon, Crutch Master but who else have you seen that breakdance or just dance on crutches?

Clair Cunningham: I’m sorry to disappoint Leroy but I’ve never breakdanced! I wouldn’t know the first thing about it. Bill certainly taught me elements of Shannon technique but he didn’t teach me breakdancing. He taught me moves that were useful to translate from his crutches (shoulder crutches) to mine – there are many that aren’t. Other break-dancers I’ve seen are Dergin Tokmak of Germany, and then a few others on YouTube. But it’s not a scene I know or am into so I’m clueless. I’m really working more in the ‘contemporary dance’ –for want of a better term – scene than anywhere else.

KHN: Mixability dancing has been popping up lately. What do you think of this and whom do you like?

Clair Cunningham: Do you mean integrated or inclusive dance in general? Or is ‘mixability’ a specific thing? Maybe this is a US/UK different terminology thing?
In terms of dance that combines disabled and non-disabled performers, I have liked work that Candoco have been doing in recent years with choreographers that really are more aware of the different physicality’s in the company and work with it. For many years the inclusive companies I saw – in any country – were still very much couched in a non-disabled contemporary dance aesthetic. So they were coming from a place where the non-disabled body was still the model, and the movement and dance techniques the disabled dancers were doing or learning was still informed by this aesthetic/ideal. This really really bothers me. I think work that brings different performers and different bodies together is always more interesting to me than work that is full of only one ‘type’ of body. I find work in which all the bodies is very similar increasingly boring.

KHN: What are the good and not so good in your field of dance lately?

Clair Cunningham: Personally I think the work by the independent artists in the UK is the strongest work at the moment, rather than by companies. I am enjoying seeing the flourish of these individual voices coming through – voices informed by lived experience of disability. There is a growing understanding – gradual – in the UK arts sector, massively helped by things such as the Unlimited Commissions (which were the largest disability arts grants every awarded in the world as part of the Olympic Cultural programming) of the richness if the arts from this sector now, rather than it being construed as something additional, irrelevant except to other disabled people. Of course its not everywhere but it has grown dramatically. I don’t want to go into the bad. I am a very cynical person and I shouldn’t ever put the bad stuff down in print!

KHN: Tell us the difference now of being a choreographer compares of “only” a dancer

Clair Cunningham: That’s one I have wrestled with a lot in recent years. I have been labeled a choreographer many times in the last few years and it never really sat very comfortably with me. I felt like a fraud. Again, it can be dependent of context – in some environments it feels ok and appropriate, and in others not so much. I think this has a lot to do with my baggage and stereotypical ideas of what a choreographer should be and do, that I feel I don’t have the skills for, however I am starting to embrace that in some respects now I do have these skills – or they are growing. It’s also about defining what my practice is, and that is growing and changing as I push myself more and learn more. The most important thing to me is to be always trying to learn more. There is a desire in me at the moment to relinquish some of the responsibility and pressure of the choreographer role. I have been making work now for the last 5 years, and rarely performed in work made by another. This is largely due to the fact that as I started to develop my own ideas –firstly I was eager to get on and make them so didn’t have time to work for others, secondly that I became too difficult to work with others as I found I struggled to suppress my own thoughts/ideas, and thirdly that inevitable thing for artists – we don’t say no. I was/have been offered support to make new work and so I jump at the offers. Fourth – and probably the most important – is that I am very very choosy about who I work with. Which I don’t consider a bad thing, but I really would only work with people I really want to work with and that really interest me. I won’t work with just anyone, or anyone that I think I wont gets on with.

However, I would really like to do some work in which I TRY to be only a performer. I think I need this in order to be pushed further as a performer. It is very hard to truly push yourself when you are inside your own work, to always see how and where it could go. I think I would like this a bit soon. Partly to give me a break from having to think about making – it’s a lot of responsibility and I would like to maybe let that go for a while and let someone else throw some ideas at me.

KHN: Now that the Olympics and Paralympics are over what have you seen the good and bad of these two international sporting events affects on the country, arts and the disability community?

Clair Cunningham: see answer earlier on about the Unlimited commissions. Not sure I can add more right now. Sorry.

KHN: What is coming up for you and will you be in the states soon?

Clair Cunningham: I am making a new short solo piece called ‘Give me a reason to live’, inspired by the work of the medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch, which also has for me taken on influences of shifts in society – recurrent shifts – as to when disabled people are particularly framed as being a negative ‘drain’ on society. So allusions to the Nazi Aktion T4 euthanasia program, and also the current shift by the UK’s current government to paint disabled people as ‘scroungers’, ‘undeserving poor’….and this shift particularly seeming to happen more vividly in times of austerity. So the work looks particularly at the concept of empathy, and trying to provoke it, and understand how we create empathy – as opposed to sympathy or apathy. It will premier in March 2014 in Den Bosch, the hometown of Hieronymus Bosch in Holland. I am also making a full evening work, also a solo which will combine movement, text and song, and is called ‘Guide Gods’. This work aims to look at the various perspectives of the major faiths towards disability – something I felt I had not really encountered much information or work on. It is obviously a rather immense topic to take on, but we will see. I am going to base the work on interviews with disabled and non-disabled people who follow a faith, or indeed those who may have been alienated from faith, like myself, due to experiences that feel quite related to being disabled. This piece is supported by the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, and will premier in Glasgow in June 2014….so for someone who does no sport I am doing quite well out of it! Sadly no plans to be in the states in the near future – which is a real shame…

KHN: What is your advice for young women who walk with crutches and wants to dance/sing…. Like you?

Clair Cunningham: Go find people that interest and inspire you and try to work with them and learn from them. Go study things in structured courses too if that works for you, but seek out people that fascinate you or make work that you admire. Try it. Whatever it is your curious about, even though its frightening, just give it a shot. My single biggest fear in life is regret. I am truly terrified of looking back when I’m older and wondering ‘what if…’ I’d done something. Sometimes I find it useful to go somewhere that people maybe don’t know me if I am trying something new, I can leave some of my baggage, the chips on my shoulders, the doubts and paranoia’s about failure at home – as no one knows me here that I cant do the thing I am here to learn (of course that’s why everyone is there to learn it!) so I can reinvent myself each time. I think that’s quite healthy.

KHN: Any last words and how can people follow your work?

Clair Cunningham: thanks for being interested Leroy. Maybe I will interview you for my faith project…??!
Following my work – I have a website:
I am very very bad at keeping it updated! But I will try!


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