I first met Claire Cunningham in 2007, over a decade ago now, as part of a lab that I was steering with Candoco Dance Company for artists from across the world interested in the company’s work. There are several very strong images and memories I carry with me from that gathering of people and their differing contributions and approaches to dance and choreography.
From the outset, with Claire it was her rigor, her resoluteness, her refusal. Claire has – in my mind – an unswerving critical capacity, to look at things down the lens of a crutch shaft. By this I mean I have noticed that there is a relationship between her use of and relationship to her crutches – how she scans, perceives, navigates and negotiates the world she inhabits – her lived experience of disability and the lens this brings to her thought and performance processes, which are meticulous, linear, specific, uncompromising, compelling. She is interested in taking things apart, precisely, methodically, contemplatively, turning them over and over in her head and hands until she feels she has a proper, choreographic and embodied understanding of how and why a thing – be it physical or conceptual – functions the way it does in relationship to her experience of the world around her.
For some this process might seem slow. Laboured. Introspective. Over the time I have known and worked with Claire I have come to really appreciate the importance of this lens, this labour, this time, this attending – as Claire describes in these podcasts – as being deeply connected to the concept of Crip Time and the phenomenology of disability.
What I witness is an affording, offering things both her time and their time, resolutely allowing each thing the time it takes, it needs, a different quality of attention, a different kind of care, a different kind of love. In the Guide Gods Digital Collection Claire, Jak Soroka, Julia Watts Belser and others talk eloquently and evocatively about the potential potency in these moments. Alongside the exhausting effort, energy and commitment – to self, to practice, to others – required to resist and refuse the dominant able-ist, patriarchal, capitalist hierarchies embedded in our physical, social, economic and spiritual environments.
Claire and I have been in conversation about differing understandings of and approaches to dance, performance and choreography since our first meeting. With every conversation we have had, we always end up returning to what it is to be human. What it is to try to live in a world where that notion is so governed by one ideal. No matter how deep or long, shallow or short our wading, gliding, trawling through these murky waters when we talk, we always find ourselves turning, slowly, back to how and where our practices rub up with what it is to be human and, to fear.
In 2014, Claire asked me to work with her as an advisor for Guide Gods the show. As a maker whose work is often participatory and conversational, created for non-theatre spaces it was a pleasure to join Claire on her continued journey of facing fears. With each project she very consciously chooses to challenge herself somehow, to step into some sort of fear. Whether that be creating work for new contexts – away from the theatre spaces she started out in – or being physically closer, more intimate and exposed with an audience, or honouring the responsibility and weight of wanting to give voice to others’ stories alongside her own. I served as a sounding board as Claire questioned how she would retain the same level of care, attention to detail, integrity and interest in others, as she does when working with her own autobiographical material.
With the Guides Gods Digital Collection, Claire has invited artist Jak Saroka to work with this same set of values, with a shared sensibility and with where the interview material generated as part of the research for Guide Gods and the show itself meet with Jak’s own practice. The result is an incredibly carefully curated collection of voices, profound perspectives, provocations, meditations and a Humanifesto accompanied by writings from Julia Watts Belser, Krista Miranda and myself.
For me the Guide Gods projects are a distinct turning point in Claire’s work. As a long time audience member, peer, part-time advisor and now dramaturg for Claire, I’ve been excited to witness the trajectory of her practice, how it has shifted and continues to evolve. Beginning from the excavation of her own autobiography as a self-identifying disabled artist, to where that lived experience – the lens she looks and feels through – and her practice intersects with other human and non-human things, experiences, ideas, practices, processes.
The Guide Gods projects seem to me to be markers in an on going conversation, a distinct moment where the relational aspect of Claire’s practice begins to open out – prefaced by research undertaken in the project Pink Mist – beyond her own autobiography, beyond her relationship with her crutches, with the ground, with the imaginal, social, political, with dance and choreography to meet with, rub up against, include, interrogate, acknowledge, contest and celebrate other stories and perspectives.
In The Guide Gods Digital Collection we find what can come from taking the time to talk. They are an example of how practices used in the studio might carry into other spaces. From the tone and approach of the work, to the ‘tell me something you love task’ passed from generations of artists across the globe – from SF based Sara Shelton Mann, to Jess Curtis, to Claire Cunningham, to disabled people who participated in this project engaged in different religious and faith practices.
These projects are where Claire starts to sit, stand, dance alongside and across from “points that don’t align with my own politics” allowing herself and us to be agitated, exasperated, informed, enthused, moved by what it is to take the time to talk, to listen to and delve into conflicting perspectives, to share space and interest, to intersect and ask difficult questions, to be called to think again on what is assumed or taken as a given.
In a Guide Gods conversation in Liverpool I remember a minister telling us, that so much of what we have come to believe about some religion is so far from what was actually written in the scriptures, because of who has been translating and teaching them, how they are taught and importantly who gets to do this teaching. Scholar and Rabbi Julia Watts Belser – whose conversations close off the Guide Gods Digital Collection – is an eminent example of how we might understand and appreciate things, understand our own and other worlds so very differently if told from another perspective.
I think this is why – from the inception of the Guide Gods projects – Claire and I began to work more and more closely on her projects and attend to the deeper, wider dramaturgies of her practice, because what interests me most is this thing of where dance meets with other worlds. When I track back through Claire’s projects I notice an opening, an opening out. From Mobile/Evolution (ME) to Menage A Trois, to 12, to Pink Mist, to Resemblance, to Guide Gods, to Give Me A Reason to Live, to The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, to Beyond The Breakwater and with the forthcoming project Thank You Very Much. I notice the move from me, to you, to us.
I notice a trajectory out from a place of isolation and exclusion, haunted by models of deficit and shame, to shame shedding, unfitting, moving from the dark, from dreams and nightmares, towards radiant refusals, resistance and retaliation, moves towards celebration, of all kinds of crutches, of Crips and Queers, of intersection and interdependence. Community, care, humour, hope, humanity, un/whole worlds of experience. From one plus two to ensembles and assemblages of objects, ideas, artists, experts of experience. Claire’s work not only meets now, with other people and perspectives but with other knowledge spheres, cultural and political contexts.
In the recent symposium Making Sense of Each Other hosted by Jess Curtis Gravity and Claire as part of the presentation of The Way You Look (at me) Tonight at American Realness at Gibney with support from Dance NYC Disability. Dance. Artistry. Task Force, I was struck by the incredible gathering of artists, activists, scholars and folks who came together to talk about themes surfaced in The Way You Look (at me) Tonight. Drawing together lines of thinking and feeling from phenomenology, theology, performance and queer studies, new materialism, disability rights and dance. I listened to the interrogation and exploration of movement practices, performance lineages, acts of sensuality and political resistance, dance vocabularies and approaches to choreography that weren’t being squished into a corner by an elephant that’s often in the room – some notion that there should be an aspiration to assimilate into ‘normative’ modes of living, working, dancing, into what has gone before.
Rather, be with – really be with – what is here. Questions were pursued and problems pushed upon by strolling and talking, moving, learning, through and by doing, in the action and activity of lived experience. I sat and listened quietly to a room full of folk who had the humility to say:
This is my experience, thus far
How do we talk about this?
Who gets to talk about this?
Are we able to hear?
Are we going to listen?
Folks who said:
What are we allowed to get close to, intimate with, across from or alongside… when we use crutches, if there are no ramps for wheelchair users, no sign language interpreters, no voices that represent or genuinely understand our lived experiences or aesthetics our perceptual modalities?
Who has been leading?
Which institutions are getting away under the radar – because of fear of critiquing those in power?
It’s exhausting fighting all the time
If the time taken, the time afforded, is only a productivity focussed 9-5, their time, not another kind of time, our time, what can we do. Productivity is not our worth.
What can we do, what can performance do? Can it be something that is generous enough to be non-oppositional, non-binary, not pitted against one another, or welded to hierarchies of thought, knowledge, experience, language, privilege? Can it be opening? Can it model other ways of being, that help us not only to think a thought in our heads, but to really feel a thought and be changed in our hearts. Can it make the space so that we take the time to talk, take the time to turn?
I notice in Claire Cunningham’s projects it can, whatever time that takes.