Developing a bespoke technique
Evolution, I realise with a bit of a shock, is now 8 years old! In some ways it’s surprising to still be doing it, but at the same time, it’s an old friend. It’s familiar and comforting. It is a work that I made, on myself, in 2007.
evolution is my telling of how I began to dance, of what my body learned, and the journey that it went on to discover its own way of moving and way of expressing itself.
Two-thirds of the piece is set material, but the last section is improvised (which always drives the audio-describers mad!) so although the work is 8 years old, the last section of the piece – a totally freeform dance to ‘Singin in the Rain' – always reflects how I move now. Today. Whatever day that is, whatever the year.
And of course I do have new work, I have a new solo, Give Me A Reason To Live, which I want to tour very much, and I think will be of interest to a lot of programmers, but in some ways I think evolution is still a great ‘gateway’ piece (if that is the right term?) for people who perhaps have never seen a disabled person dance before, or those who have only seen disabled dancers who are still working in an aesthetic based around non-disabled bodies. evolution shows a way of moving, a bespoke technique, totally specific to the body that has created it. It shows dancing with crutches, with this body, and what the combination of those two things offers. I do not try to dance like a non-disabled person. Why on earth would I do that??!
Disabled or 'mainstream'?
The work has so far played in Poland, Germany, Italy, Cambodia, Ireland, Venezuela, Brazil, Switzerland, Sweden and Romania, and although there is some spoken English in the piece, it is minimal and seems to work fine with subtitles. Mostly the work has been programmed as part of ‘mainstream’ festivals, rather than within ‘disability festivals’. I am one of the fortunate artists who exists in both worlds, which is hugely important to me. It is vital that I can play in mainstream contexts because then I know the work is programmed purely based on the art (though there is a slight danger of being a ‘novelty act’ which I am aware of) but it means people who would probably not choose to go and engage with work by disabled artists – because of the age-old problem of having low expectations of the quality of the work – see it and (hopefully!) have that notion blown out the water.
It is also vital to me however, to perform in contexts specific to showcasing and promoting disabled artists such as Unlimited Access, because it not only provides an opportunity to exchange with other disabled artists as I already did in Lisbon, with VoArte, but (hopefully) there will also be more disabled individuals in the audience. I hope they see an event that is inviting and accessible to them, is representative of them, and relevant to them. They may be more likely to go through the doors of that festival than they might to a ‘mainstream’ festival. And it is this that forms the potential start of a cycle. By seeing work that is representative of themselves, or that they can relate to, means that possibly…they might leave and think: “I can do that..” and maybe feel empowered enough to go banging on the doors of some institutions!
Projects like Unlimited Access can also engage directly with those institutions, can broker relationships with programmers/promoters, can shatter that traditional fear that work by disabled people is ‘not good enough’ and get right into the meat of the conversations – so get past the “why do it?” (the answer to that is really just “Equal Rights”), and straight to the “How to do it?”
This is where the knowledge accumulated in the UK, and the good fortune of having financial support to develop disability arts tips over into the responsibility then to share that experience with others. I have been incredibly fortunate to benefit from the long legacy, over decades in the UK, of community arts practice, and work by disabled activists and artists, that has led to the huge investment and support placed into disability arts in recent years. I feel a genuine responsibility to contribute to the development of future artists both in the UK and elsewhere, and it is important to me to feel that I CAN contribute to that in some meaningful way. The most meaningful way is simply to do what I do. To make art. To share that art with others, and through my art to connect with people. Anywhere.
Claire Cunningham is a performer and creator of multi-disciplinary performance based in Scotland. You can find out more about her work in our Artists and Companies directory, and you can watch a short clip of 'evolution' here.