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'She thought I needed prayers as I was disabled, it kindled a fire inside me'

By Una Brankin

Despite needing crutches for a disability, new Belfast Festival at Queen's artist-in-residence Claire Cunningham is a renowned performer. But nothing prepared her for being pitied by a religious Irish woman.

An Irish woman once approached Claire Cunningham with a miraculous medal, offering to say a prayer for her. She politely declined, but the woman persisted, like Mrs Doyle with her cups of tea, until she felt forced to take it.

"She thought because I was on crutches and disabled, I needed prayed for, and that upset me," recalls the Scottish performance artist, who studied music in Dublin.

"The subtext was 'I wouldn't want to be you'.

"I don't see myself as an object of pity. In my opinion my disability doesn't matter – I don't need your prayers. My life's fine, thank you. It kindled a fire in me."

Claire was born with osteoporosis and arthrogryposis – a condition which affects the joints – but has gone on to become an internationally acclaimed performer and choreographer.

Recently announced as the artist-in-residence for the 2014 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, which kicks off in October, the 29-year-old from Glasgow integrates the dynamic and imaginative use of her crutches in her act, alongside acting and her vocal skills.

While she's here she will be working on a big spark from the fire ignited in her by the well-meaning but insensitive rural Irish mammy.

Guide Gods will explore the perspectives of the major religions and faiths towards disability – is it the will of a higher power, or is Claire paying for the mistakes of a past life?

Is it a test for her or a punishment for her parents? Could she, or should she, be healed?

"I'm very keen to understand and learn how I relate to believers," comes the soft burr down the line. "I was brought up in the Church of Scotland but I don't have any religious beliefs. I believe in science, but I respect the beliefs of others and what belief can offer people.

"Sadly, though, it still is a divided city here in Glasgow; we have marches and lodges, and separate schools.

"The football club allegiances perpetuate it, too. I grew up in Ayrshire and never understood until later on that when someone asked you what school you went to, that meant, 'what religion are you?'"

The classically trained singer was also offended – more profoundly – by former England football coach Glenn Hoddle in 1999, when he said, in relation to disability: "What you sow, you have to reap." Hoddle was swiftly sacked but, as a 14-year-old in 1999, the wounds ran deep for Claire.

"It's a blurry memory but I remember being upset for about a week," she recalls.

"It was a very confusing notion. I'd never thought of a previous life before – then I was thinking, 'what could I have done that was so bad that it deserved this?'

"I felt put-upon, despite living a privileged life – my parents are well-off and always supported me. I felt different and was looking for reasons why.

"When I came back to visit the south of Ireland after studying in Dublin, and met the lady with the medal, I was in a different place, more secure in myself."

She admits mentally blocking out about her disability in her early adolescence.

Reality dawned when she had to start using her crutches at 14. It seems 1999 must have been a traumatic year for her.

"I was in denial about my physical impairment. I was trying to get my bones to grow, to get taller, and kept getting fractures. It's easier to live in denial, in fantasy land, sometimes.

"But when I got older I realised I wasn't getting there and eventually accepted it. I decided 'That's okay – now how do I make it work for me?'"

She found the answer in music and dance. Studying classical music at York University, she began to acknowledge herself as disabled and joined the university's access group. A major turning point in her fledgling career was seeing Bill Shannon, an internationally famous hip hop and skateboard performer who integrates his crutches into his dance. Although she saw herself as a singer, she started to get into Taiko drumming and dance.

A choreographer, Jess Curtis, showed her the way to become a dance performer and helped her developed a very unique set of skills, using her crutches.

She now sees them, at times, as an extension of her limbs.

"For a long time I did not – I saw them very much as separate objects, initially objects that I hated but used out of necessity," she admits. "And then later as I began to work in dance, people would say that they saw them as an extension of my limbs, but I didn't feel that. Only in recent years has that changed; I think my movement on them has become more organic and I do recognise that I am intensely aware of feeling, or sensing, through them to a degree, and to knowing intrinsically the length of them – so that I don't hit anyone or anything with them when I am moving quickly.

"So to that extent I now realise that I do use them in a way that is an extension of my own body, but that I also enjoy the possibility of then very consciously separating them from me and looking and working at them very much as objects, and the contrast that then creates in my performances."

Now a successful and sought-after artist, Claire's disability is at the heart of her work and groundbreaking shows, Mobile Evolution and Menage A Trois.

Clever use of light and movement make her performances dazzling, thought-provoking and, at times, humourous.

Her own dry sense of humour is evident.

"I think the Glasgow and Belfast sense of humour are quite similar – dark, dry, self-deprecating. I relate to life in Ireland quite a lot. People say the weather is rubbish – why do you live here? The humour is part of it."

Completely at home on stage, and comfortable in her own skin, she doesn't take offence at comedians who make jokes about disability – unlike Katie Price, who went to war with Heat magazine and Frankie Boyle when they made fun of her disabled son, Harvey.

"Like most things it depends on the context – I don't take offence usually at the jokes I have heard disabled comedians make about disability, as it is informed, but yes, if the humour is unintelligent and simply about ridiculing people and perpetuating negative stereotypes, which can be the tendency of cheap humour coming from non-disabled comedians regarding disability, then I find that offensive and destructive.

"I don't believe that PC-ness needs to go to ridiculous lengths, but I think it is the sad domain of comics who don't really give much thought to the power of words and the power of continuing to re-enforce stereotypes.

"It's as repulsive as racism, sexism, homophobia, religious victimisation, which do tend to get called out and highlighted, but sadly a lot of media and society seem to not notice when disabled people are being ridiculed or victimised. Somehow this is still seen as okay. It's not okay."

She goes on to make the salient point that the vast majority of us will be disabled to some degree if we live long enough.

Ever matter-of-fact about her own disability, she told an audience at London's Southbank Centre last year: "I would now never not want to be disabled".

So if reincarnation could be a reality, what would she choose to come back as in the next life?

"Oh, I've never thought about that. It would have to be a life in a sunny country, for a start! Maybe I'd come back as my favourite animal." I've no objection to coming back disabled. Disability has offered me extraordinary freedom and opportunities. I changed my perspective on my crutches and they became an object of fascination. They are now a way for me to express that freedom."

  • For more information on the 51st Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, visit www.belfastfestival. com or tel: 028 9097 1345

Portrait of the artist-in-residence

  • Claire Cunningham is the envy of many of her contemporaries, covetous of her appointment as artist in residence at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's e The post gives her a chance to research, meet new people and experience life in a new location
  • While in Belfast, Claire will be researching a new work, Guide Gods, which will premiere in Glasgow as part of the 2014 Culture Programme, with only two further opportunities to view the work; at the South Bank Centre London and at our very own Festival here in Belfast
  • Using dance, live music, humour and interviews with religious leaders, academics and deaf and disabled people, Claire will explore the intricacies of the major world faiths and their views on deafness and disability in this illuminating new show
  • She will also contribute to selected artist talks and conversations with both visiting artists, such as Camille A Brown, and Queen's University students at the School of Creative Arts, and working with the Arts & Disability Forum to advise/mentor disabled artists In her cups: Claire with Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's director Richard Wakely

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