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“‘I wasn’t made to click. But with you I Click. We. Click.’: Constructing the Prosthetic Body in Claire Cunningham’s Dance Theater”

by Krista K. Miranda Ph.D

Part of the presentation “Doing the Body in the 21st Century,” International Conference, hosted by the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, March 31 – April 2, 2016.

“On the first day was created the earth, and it was white and flat. And I saw that it was good. On the second day was created the four corners of the earth, and carpeted they were in blue. And on these were placed chairs and cushions for the people, that they might be comforted. On the third day was created an archway festooned with crutches. This was the entrance to the world, and I saw that it was good. On the fourth day was created…Derek. And Derek sat behind a harmonium with which to fill the world with glorious music…On the fifth day was created…Louisa, and sat was she behind a desk, with two laptop computers in order that she might record the word, and convey it to the people. Particularly those who are hard of hearing.” Scottish dance-theater artist Claire Cunningham enters through the archway, the circular stage populated by her audience on its perimeters. She acknowledges the bodies with which she shares the space, shakes their hands. Waves hello. In the beginning, she is a body among bodies. She sings. She dances up and down the platform, an altar of worship of sorts with three steps leading up to it, from whence the voice of the omniscience narrator is heard describing Cunningham’s movements for the entirety of the hour-long work. Scenically, choreographically, and linguistically, Guide Gods, performed at the University of Glasgow chapel in 2014, begins with the construction of a world where the earth, its people, and its objects come together in the malleable space of the theater.

In another world, partnered by a collection of crutches scattered across the stage—like some-time body parts, or discarded lovers—Cunningham choreographs a depiction of bodily life, love, and sex by crafting a lover out of her crutches in her 2012 work, Ménage à Trois. “I wasn’t made to click. But with you I click. We. Click. Like a clique, a trio, a Ménage à Trois.” Ménage à Trois—where the troisrefers to a lover, the crutches as part of the prosthetic self that comes into contact with a lover, and the crutches as lover. Or the self. Subject/object/something other entirely, Cunningham’s prosthetics are both body and the hinge between bodies in love and sex. In Ménage à Trois, Cunningham addresses the paradox of her prosthetics, which both are and are not the body, simultaneously facilitating and impeding the interconnection of being bodies together in the world. Ménage à Trois is about bodily boundaries, about self and objecthood, about flesh and steel and rubber and love. Ménage à Trois, its title, the nature of the trio, the ambiguity of the “you” and the “we” set against the emphatic “with” in the quote above signals a world of embodied being where the binary of self and other collapse under the pressure of actual bodily life. Margrit Shildrick, in Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality, explains that liberal humanism adheres to a model of subjecthood dependent on maintaining the distinction between self and other[1]; in other words, one must be autonomous, complete, sealed off from what one is not. However, a phenomenological account of embodied being attunes us to the porousness of bodily boundaries, the ambiguity of our points of contact, for the phenomenological model of embodiment depicts self-making as “a lifelong process of becoming with others in an open encounter that constitutes both self and other.”[2] Building on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Shildrick describes this “profound interconnectivity of embodied social relations,”[3] or intercorporeality, as “a mutual crossing of boundaries that enacts the very means through which embodied subjects are both constituted, and undone.”[4] I was not made to click, but with you, I click, we, click—the click denotes getting along with someone, the sound of mobilization with prosthetics, or simply being a subject. With you, I click

I was planning to write about Ménage à Trois, but the full performance couldn’t be documented because the set obscured the camera’s view. Although my inability to fully witness Cunningham’s personal take on the prosthetic body—how her crutches both aid and complicate the contact between bodies and how this contact with a prosthetic body points us toward the disintegration of fixed, distinct bodily boundaries—is indeed a small scholarly tragedy, Ménage à Trois is simply one manifestation of Cunningham’s performance of how bodies not only connect, but also effectively create each other by virtue of their connection. Although sex is a particularly intensified form of bodily contact loaded with flesh, fluid, affect, and ideology, intercorporeality is not specific to sexual contact. In this short essay, I will not only explore how the explicit portrayal of intercorporeality via the prosthetic body in Ménage à Trois is implicitly performed in Guide Gods, but I will also discuss how Cunningham’s figuration of the body in dance theater brings together both discursive and phenomenological models of embodiment.

In its first handful of days, the world Cunningham creates in Guide Gods gains ground, comfortable places for bodies to sit, an entranceway made of crutches, music, accommodation with Louisa and her laptops, and an altar for worship. Cunningham, then, creates a world that, to borrow from Robert McRuer in Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, not only welcomes but also anticipates the disability to come by literally setting the stage for the figuration of bodies in an accessible world.[5] Guide Gods, Cunningham explains while sitting on the bottom step of the platform to take off her shoes, was spurred by a conversation she had in Cambodia with a former Buddhist monk; he had polio and attributed his disability to Karma, to having done something punishable in a past life. Offended and unsure of how to engage with that perspective on disability, Cunningham wonders aloud if any other faiths, within their core beliefs and scriptures, address disability, and set forth to conduct a series of conversations with academics, theologians, faith leaders, disabled and non-disabled people, people who both do and do not follow a faith. Climbing the steps of the altar she turns to face the stage, sits on the handles of her crutches, speaks to the audience: “I think I have found the way to bring all faiths together…I have discovered one thing that unites them all, a unifying ritual.” She picks up a teacup and saucer from the altar: “A cup of tea.” Slowly, she descends the stairs, moving the cup, shaking on its saucer, from one hand to another, a balancing act of cup, stair, crutch: “Of all the faiths that I’ve spoken to, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Sikhs …the Christians, they all love a cup of tea…And I have drunk more tea in the last few months of talking to these people than in my entire life put together.” Now center stage, she twists back and forth, her crutches firmly planted beneath her, impeding her descent to the stage with teacup in hand. Once finally seated, she says, “The first person I spoke to was Margaret.” She lifts the teacup, holds it in her palms, peers inside, activating Margaret’s voice: “I don’t see my disability as a form of punishment…I know there are people who…probably are very evangelical and maybe would subscribe to that view… I was born very prematurely which cost me my sight. But I do think that if the Man Upstairs had wanted me to have sight, he would have given it to me.” Margaret’s voiceover continues about the archaic notion of affliction, about how her religious community embraced her, and yet, she still had to take her church to the Equality Commission, the institution in England and Wales that protects human rights, in order to obtain a book in Braille, and even then, the corrections to the text, some of which radically changed the meaning, were made via handwritten notes.

Cunningham takes a tray of teacups from the altar, descends the stairs while singing “Down to the River to Pray,” one of several hymns she performs throughout the work, pausing at questionable lyrics that speak to “fixing the lame” later in the performance. With each step she hooks her foot around the crutch to place it on the step below until making her way back to center stage. She arranges the cups around the perimeter of the performance space, sliding on her shins, one arm propped up by a crutch that serves as a pivot point. Each teacup, we come to find out, represents a person with whom she spoke, a different religious perspective on disability, another personal story of disabled embodiment. These porcelain bodies not only stand in for the people themselves, but they are also material manifestations of the connections they made with Cunningham as they talked over tea and bodies.

While these teacups are not prosthetics per se, Cunningham’s choreography points toward their prosthetic possibilities. In The Prosthetic Impulse: from a Postthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra describe the prosthetic impulse as “composed of any encounter—material, figural, or metaphorical—that facilitates or contests our chances of making (human) contact with [an increasingly mediated] modern world…Such encounters do not simply examine the ways in which the body is extended or enhanced by prosthetic technologies but also explore the ways that the body and technology come into contact with one another.”[6] If prosthesis denotes “an addition, a replacement, and also an extension, an augmentation, or an enhancement,”[7]then how do we make sense of materializations, like in art and performance, of the immaterial stuffof the embodied entanglement of relational being, or intercorporeality? While tea is not particularly technological, I believe Cunningham’s use of her crutches in conjunction with her employment of the teacups in Guide Gods opens up the possibility that the prosthetic impulse could be expanded to include materializations, like Cunningham’s teacups in dance theater, of human to human, or non-technological, interconnection.

Cunningham strategically places an increasing number of teacups—the bodies that hold the voices that tell their stories of disability and religion—around the stage, populating this world she has created, unified by the sharing of tea. By adopting the rhetoric of the story of creation, Cunningham references a pervasive biblical narrative that inhabits the cultural imagination about body-making, human-making. Cunningham’s engagement with and revision of body-making and worldmaking in religious discourse through the discourse of dance theater is a profound act of resistance against a long history of compulsory ableism. On the first day, the earth was created, and on the second, comfortable places for people to sit: The timing of this series of creations is significant, for the people, it seems, have been created in coexistence with the earth. If we abandon the fantasy of autonomy, completion, and bodily wholeness that much of Western culture and neoliberalism in particular support as the natural order of things, we open ourselves up to the notion that the body and world are inextricable. It is in fact our contact with others and the world around us that constitutes ourselves as subjects. Arguing for what Merleau-Ponty calls “a fundamental unity of existence,” Schildrick suggests we abandon the idea of bodies as numerous, distinct corporealities and instead urges us to envision “a tissue of intercorporeality in which each body is open to and affected by others.”[8]  Intercorporeality as a tissue. Or a cup of tea.

Across her work, Cunningham employs her prosthetics to illuminate the flexibility of bodily boundaries and the ways our bodies are shaped through interaction with other bodies and the world. The ambiguity of Cunningham’s crutches as self or other, or something else, in Ménage à Trois prompted my investigation into the ways Cunningham utilizes her prosthetics to theorize embodiment—and here I want to say embodiment in general—through dance theater.  In Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependence of Discourse, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder call for a profound repositioning of the disabled body, the prostheticized body in particular, as not the exception, but the rule,[9] destabilizing any notion of the body as essentially whole, complete, or fixed. While I agree with centralizing the disabled body to theorize embodiment—I am, after all, doing it right now—one must be careful not to over use the metaphor of the prosthetic at the expense of people who use actual prosthetics. In her essay, “A Leg to Stand on: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality,” Vivian Sobchack is wary of this metaphorical overuse not only because the literal prosthetic and those who use prosthetics are often forgotten in its application, but also, she argues, this application of “the prosthetic” transfers agency…from human to human artifacts, rendering the user of the prosthetics passive, if not completely invisible.[10] Sobchack, then, argues for more a “synechdochic” approach to discussing the relationship between the subject and her prosthetics, where the prosthetic is understood “as of the same species as the body that has incorporated and therefore included it.[11]” I imagine Sobcheck might argue that my theorization of the intercorporeal nature of embodied being through Claire Cunningham’s dance theater puts me in danger of using the concept of prosthesis as what she calls a “sexy, new metaphor…for describing a vague and shifting constellation of relationships among bodies, technologies, and subjectivities.”[12] However, I argue that I am indeed doing something a bit different, not simply because I am discussing Cunningham’s actual use of her literal prosthetics in conjunction with (and here’s where the metaphor comes in) the teacups, but because Sobchack’s concept of the body envisions the prosthetic as albeit an extension of the body, but the limit of that extension.

To address Sobchack’s concern with agency, let’s return to how Cunningham mobilizes, and dare I say, animates her actual and metaphorical prosthetics through her figuration of the disabled body in discourse over tea, or the conceit of the teacup. As Cunningham dances from cup to cup, sliding on her knees, sweeping through the empty spaces on stage propelled by a push or a swivel from her crutches, she attends to each cup in time; her touch, as she lifts it off its saucer, animating the voices of the interviewees. They tell their stories, of their ideologies, of their bodies, and she dances among them. These points of contact, between body and porcelain and prosthetic are not uni-directional, where agency is transferred from subject to object or self to other, for that formulation depends on the construction of distinct boundaries between bodies. Recent work in new materialism, supported by scientific advancements in fields like genetics and biotechnology, offers us a framework for “conceiving matter as possessing its own modes of self-transformation, self-organization, and directness, and thus no longer simply as passive or inert, disturbs the conventional sense that agents are exclusively humans.”[13]

With increasing speed, Cunningham places the cups on new saucers, causing the voices to overlap and eventually become unintelligible, crowding the stage until she eventually yells STOP to quiet the voices. Crutches in hand, she weaves through the teacups, spinning, leaping from foot to foot, her choreography around and between the cups quickening, becoming more complex, even dangerous. Discarding the saucers, she turns the teacups over, places each of her knees on the top of a cup. She extends her arms to place her hands on two more teacups, and crawls around the stage, abandoning old cups for new ones, locomoting via porcelain. The cups, a means of mobility, slide and click under the weight of her shifting body while another voice tells another story. She grabs her crutches, stands up, balances her toes on two teacups and circles the performance space, shifting the cups along the stage with her toes until she finds a new cup with each foot, crutches and cups acting as hinges between her flesh and the stage, or prosthetic extensions into crip terrain. She continues this practice, propelling from cup to cup, some close together, some a lunge or a split-length away, all of her movements narrated by the omnipotent voice. Describing Merleau-Ponty’s vision of intercorporeality, Shildrick explains that “the unity of our mutual existence is woven together by the reversibility of such binaries as perceiver/perceived and subject/object….As I see and touch,” touch is both literal and figurative, “I feel myself being seen and touched.”[14]  Accordingly, agency cannot be uni-directionally transferred to the prosthetic object, for the active/passive binary does not apply to the phenomenological encounter.

Guide Gods concludes with the teacups, now upright, in a line across the stage. Placing the mic inside a cup, Cunningham asks, “Tell me something you love.” It answers: “Nature.” “Nature, thank you.” To another cup, “Tell me something you love,” “My friends.” She continues this practice until she runs out of cups, then turns to the audience, “Tell me Something you love,” person after person, until their answers, having been recorded, are repeated back until the voices overlap like the narratives from the cups earlier, and she offers them each a cup of tea.

Cunningham doesn’t just make bodies, she makes worlds, and through her worldmaking she critiques both the cultural and institutional barriers that insist on wholeness, completion, fixity, and separation. The world Cunningham creates in Guide Gods is entangled, lacks distinct boundaries, and therefor anticipates the varying levels of incompleteness emblematic of all bodies. But with you I click. We Click. With you I am with the world. If we abandon this notion of parts and wholes, of bodily completeness, we can embrace the inherent interconnection of bodily being. We click.

About the Author

Krista K. Miranda is an interdisciplinary scholar of performance, gender, sexuality, and disability. After earning her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University in 2015, she was a Visiting Lecturer in the Dance Program at Middlebury College in Vermont. As a Visiting Scholar in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University, she is currently working on her manuscript, Playing with Your Parts: Dismantling Bodily “Wholeness” through Queer and Crip Performance. Miranda’s work can be found in The Oxford Handbook on Dance and Theater, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, and the forthcoming collection, Pornographies: Critical Positions. 

Works Cited

Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost. “Introducing the New Materialisms.” In New

Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. Durham, Duke University Press, 2010.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability.  New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependence of Discourse. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Shildrick, Margrit. Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Smith, Marquard and Joanne Morra. “Introduction.” In The Prosthetic Impulse: from a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. Edited by Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

Sobchack, Vivian. “A Leg to Stand on: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality.”  In The Prosthetic Impulse: from a Posthuman present to a biocultural future. Edited by Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

[1] Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 20.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New

York: New York University Press, 2006), 207.

[6] Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, “Introduction,” in The Prosthetic Impulse: from a Posthuman present to a biocultural future, edited by Marquard Smith and

Joanne Morra (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 4.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Shildrick, 25, 26.

[9] David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the

Dependence of Discourse (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press,

2000), 7.

[10] Vivian Sobchack, “A Leg to Stand on: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality,” in The Prosthetic Impulse: from a Posthuman present to a biocultural future, edited by Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 20, 23.

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Ibid., 19.

[13] Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, “Introducing the New Materialisms,” in New

Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham, Duke University Press, 2010), 9-10.

[14] Shildrick, 30.