Choreographer and performer Claire Cunningham talks to Colin Hambrook about her new solo performance ‘Give Me A Reason To Live’. Exploring religious art, and the questions it raises about impaired bodies and quality of life, the work takes the form of a series of tests of body and of faith. Stripped down the work is a study in the notion of empathy.
Since Unlimited 2012 Claire Cunningham’s work has gone beyond personal themes of relationship to impairment and disability to looking outward at other disabled peoples’ experiences.
Her last piece ‘Guide Gods’ was a powerful, intimate and beautifully researched look at disabled peoples’ relationship with religion and community.
Now with 'Give Me A Reason To Live', her work is delving further into politics, taking lessons from history to attempt to understand what is happening now.
So how does the making of this work differ from the process of making and choreographing previous pieces?
“With each new performance I like to push myself out of my comfort zone and try something different. The key thing is that I usually have an idea or questions I want to resolve before I start work on a piece. For example with ‘Ménage à Trois’ I’d written the text for the piece 5 years before putting it on stage.
With ‘Give Me A Reason To Live’, I decided to genuinely follow the research and to let it guide what the work needed to become. I’m not interested in staying in the same place creatively. With each new work I’m attempting to push my practice, challenging myself to try new things.”
So how did you end up linking the 16th century paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the Nazi Aktion T4 euthanasia program and disabled victims of the current UK governments so-called ‘welfare reform'?
“The starting point for Give Me A Reason To Live was an invite to learn about Hieronymus Bosch and make work in response. The B Project was an artist-development initiative, which invites European choreographers to research and create new dances inspired by Bosch.
Learning about Bosch, academics talked about the growing climate of fear across Europe from the early 1500s onwards. There was a shift in religious painting around the middle of the 16th Century, and towards the end of the century when Europe caught the 'millennium bug' the Art became infected by visions of apocalypse, the witch trials and a growing victimisation of women, of disabled people and of anyone categorised as ‘other’.
The first lecture we received about Bosch was from a guy who specialised in sketches of Bosch. He showed us pages of studies of beggars and cripples, most probably done by apprentices in his studio. There are sketches of minstrels too, which was the other main career option at the time for disabled people. There are a vast array of extraordinary bodies in these drawings.
I tried to resist jumping on the disability thing but the artwork was so amazing. With Bosch the meanings have changed so much that all interpretation is speculation. For example we know that the owl in Bosch's time represents evil and stupidity as opposed wisdom as it is more commonly associated with nowadays, but it led me to ask about representation and the opinion of this academic was that the disabled characters were there as symbols of sin and greed.
Previously beggars and cripples had been depicted as people you’d help (the ideas being that it might be Jesus!), but somewhere in middle of the 16th century the symbology changed and disabled people began to be depicted within the artwork as repositories of evil. When society shifts into a place of fear it turns on disabled people, women, immigrants - anyone who represents the ‘other’ who can easily be made outcast.
I developed a fascination with the physicality of the characters in the art. Those condemned as sinful look downwards, whilst those who are depicted as open and upright are destined for heaven. I became fascinated with how we think someone’s character is either deserving or undeserving? Worthy or unworthy?
I was deeply affected by the painting ’Christ Mocked’ in the National Gallery. It is not typical of Bosch’s detailed landscapes and shows a big close up of Christ with his four persecutors, just before he carries the cross to Golgotha. We were told by the curator that it shows a shift in art to provoke empathy with Christ and his suffering as a human being, rather than his status as Son of God. The pain becomes more realistically depicted rather than glorified or stylised.
I became intrigued by this concept of art designed to provoke empathy. Of course we make art with an intention to convey something but the open manipulation of religious art began to fascinate me. What does it mean to make art designed to evoke specific emotions? What is empathy in relation to sympathy? Is a disabled body always going to provoke feelings of pity? Is it a physical thing?
And the change we’ve seen in the tabloid press over the last ten years turning on disabled people with representation as ‘scroungers’ and ‘burdens on society’ seemed to parallel what was happening 500 years ago: it seems to be a current manifestation of that cycle all over again.
And as I followed that line of enquiry so there was a point in the process when a connection between the Nazis Action T4 Programme and the current situation of ‘Welfare Reform’ clicked. The capability assessments put people in a place of being judged by what you can and you can’t do; working between two extremes. It puts you on a tightrope of trying to prove your worth; having to admit limitations, whilst at the same time you can’t be seen to be too strong or too weak. It’s maybe not as overt as the Nazis programme of defining individuals as ‘useless eaters’ but it puts people in an impossible situation nonetheless.
Just as Bosch’s disabled characters are beyond hope, so the present representation of disabled people out of work, is of a class of people who are deemed to be at worst fraudulent or at best need to try harder."
And so finally I asked Claire what the effect of working without preconceived outcomes had on the final piece?
"Give Me A Reason To Live is purer in form, aesthetically. I was interested in how could I physically push myself a bit harder, but to do less in terms of what I am doing on stage. The result is to communicate more by stripping things down and learning how to do less, better. The choreography becomes simpler; more functional and task-based. Moving away from text has given me the chance to go far deeper into the choreographic movement than I have done in previous work."
'Give Me A Reason To Live' shows at the Old Market in the Brighton Festival on 19-20 May before going to Dancebase in Edinburgh as part of the Fringe Festival in August.