Having been nominated for the Isadora Duncan award for her collaboration with Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, and winning the Best Ensemble and Best Sound and Music Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland for Thank You Very Much, Claire Cunningham is one of Scotland’s most celebrated, successful and dynamic choreographers. From her solo works Mobile and Evolution, which were integrated into a double bill M/E for the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, through to her examination of Elvis Presley tribute acts in Thank You Very Much, via explorations of religion (Guide Gods) and a work created for a gallery space, Cunningham’s performances reveal a restless imagination and innovative approach to choreography, firmly rooted in her lived experience as a self-identifying disabled artist and a compassionate activism that challenges notions of the normative body. Having incorporated aerialism, dance, song and text into her productions, Cunningham has created a series of performances that simultaneously challenge traditional ideals of physicality and the potential of theatricality, maintaining an intellectual rigour and a desire to forge a more welcoming relationship between performers, audiences and the spaces that they share.
‘I guess my work sits within contemporary dance but there is always a lot of text,’ she comments. ‘It can sit within dance and drama. It sits very well with audiences who want story and narrative and text because it is usually quite heavily loaded with that.’ And while both the content and style of her productions are accessible – the warmth with which she speaks of the tribute acts who informed Thank You Very Much lends an obscure community of performers an immediacy and commonality – she is unafraid of grappling with serious concepts. ‘I like to take complicated or personal – for me – or nuanced ideas about disability politics and open them up in ways that are easy to understand, particularly if it is a new concept around how the audience might have perceived disability.’
In the case of Thank You Very Much, Cunningham combines her childhood enthusiasm for Elvis with research into the tribute acts and her own recognition of how normative ideas about physicality impose an artificial movement vocabulary on disabled bodies. As the impersonator follows a series of prescribed gestures to capture the appearance of the King of Rock’n’Roll, a person with a different physicality or neurodivergence is compelled to adapt their movements and behaviours. But rather than marginalising or othering the tribute acts, Cunningham began by researching the scene, visiting the festival in Porthcawl and inviting some of the performers to work with her ensemble cast to develop the show.
Having staged the show as part of Manchester International Festival in 2019, Cunningham returned to it in 2021, ‘right in the midst of the pandemic! Because of that, we had to revise it. There were a lot of precautions in place, which I wanted and respected, but having a company of people who were genuinely high-risk, there was a question of how we could tour it while keeping ourselves and the audience safe. I originally made Thank You Very Muchwith the intention of it being quite intimate. The audience are close, it was set up like cabaret or dinner theatre and we had moments when we would invite the audience on stage to help us and interact with us. We physically got close to people.’
That particular aspect of the show, which breaks down what Cunningham regards as the gap between audience and what she mockingly calls ‘the sacred artist’ – provided a particular challenge.
‘If I didn’t put those measures in place, it is very hypocritical. Although changing a show was terrifying, it was also really strengthening. It gave me a lot of confidence. We were forced to ask what matters, and in that process, found even better ways to do things. The way I think about the politics of disability, that things do not have to look the same on one body as the next, that can also apply to a piece of choreography. The show keeps evolving, which feels really healthy.’
At the heart of Thank You Very Much is an attitude and aesthetic that has developed throughout Cunningham’s creative journey: a desire to challenge assumptions about disability and to recover the knowledge that individuals have about their own needs and capacity of their bodies.
‘This is inherent in making the work: to frame the lived experience of disability on my own terms: recognising the knowledge of the lived experience of disability, in a variety of ways whether it is physical or neuro-divergent, because you have to navigate a world which has not been designed for you. The systems and the structures, physical and communication systems, everything has been designed in such a way that it demands such problem solving that I think the work is dealing with the politics of that. None of that knowledge has been perceived as knowledge: we are never, historically, acknowledged as experts in our own bodies.’
Even Cunningham’s earliest experiences with dance convinced her that another approach was possible. ‘When I came to dance, I had the sense that having to navigate the world differently, is what choreography is. Surely we should be looking at the people who are already doing this: the people who have been actively excluded from choreographic spaces. Thank You Very Much studies a group of performers, the tribute artists, who are excluded from choreographic notions of high art, and maps their processes onto a choreography that celebrates difference, ultimately questioning the normative idealism of the theatre itself.
‘A lot of the work I did with Jess Curtis was about recognising the ableism built into the theatre system: that expects a bi-pedular body that can walk up and down some stairs, fully sighted and fully hearing. They expect people to sit still and sit silently for 80 minutes without needing to leave. There is a very unrealistic ideas about the human being and theatre has been built with that expectations: sit still, be quiet, don’t leave. And there are a whole bunch of people who have not been able to come because it is not welcoming. My work is about confronting that and asking how do I make a space that is welcoming and safe to a broader type of audience.’
Thank You Very Much, created and conceived by Claire Cunningham, premiered at Manchester International Festival in 2019 followed by performances in Dusseldorf, Glasgow, and London. In 2021 the production successfully toured to a variety of festivals in Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden. The production is touring festivals and venues in Europe in 2023.
About the Author
Gareth K Vile is a Scotland-based theatre critic who has a special interest in challenging, innovative performance. He also teaches Latin, and is the publisher of the Edinburgisch Dramaturgie, an independent critical magazine.
Photography by Sven Hagolani.