Review: Claire Cunningham - Guide Gods - Unlimited Festival

Performance: 2 & 3 September 2014
Reviewed by Josephine Leask - Friday 5 September 2014

Claire Cunningham in 'Guide Gods'. Photo: Colin Hearn, The Herald

Performance reviewed: 3 September

It’s always such a refreshing treat when a large stage such as that of the Queen Elizabeth Hall is transformed into a more intimate, less formal theatre space. Claire Cunningham creates a living-room cosiness on the curtained-off stage complete with seating arranged in a circle on a carpeted floor scattered with cushions. The audience enters through an archway of crutches while at the opposite end sits a prominent shrine bearing religious icons and tea-cups, both central themes of Guide Gods.

Her danced, spoken and sung documentary on the sensitive relationship between religion and disability and deafness takes her on a journey through all of the main religions, (Judaism is notable for its absence), to discover how they ‘deal’, or not, with disability. It’s a humorous critique: the Christian songs she sings – Lord of the Dance , Handel’s Messiah – mention disability as something that needs to be cured, Evangelicals regard disability as a punishment, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk defrocked for his disability blames bad karma in a previous life, Muslim disabled people are kept out of public sight. In religion disability is either demonised or sanctified.

Cunningham’s searching and confessional text, which she presents both live and through audio description is based on interviews and research; her style is straight- talking but infused with wit and irony. Using china tea-cups as talking heads, in reference to being given endless tea by her interviewees, she addresses them verbally but also arranges them in different formations around the space. They become symbols of communication and information, but also props for her choreography. At one point she pirouettes, leaps and glides around the delicate china and even uses the cups to support her weight as she balances on top of them.

Throughout Guide Gods Cunningham commands the space physically and her movement is measured but daring; watching her balance both with and without her crutches is as thrilling as watching a tight rope artist. Although she shows us the effort in walking up steps or carrying a tray of cups on crutches, she also displays incredible fluidity and skill in her manipulation of both crutches and props.

Here we see a strong character who makes the best of her disability and cherishes it as being an essential part of her. “I wouldn’t want to be anything else” she says as she dismisses religion’s need to blame and cure disability or society’s need to make everybody ‘perfect’. Cunningham is a generous, unembittered performer and while she pokes fun at the superstitious, prejudice views of religion, she plays the Good Samaritan in her respect for and acceptance of all beliefs, faiths… and body types.

Unlimited Festival continues at Southbank Centre until Sunday 7 September. Programme details:

Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider.

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