Review: Claire Cunningham / Janice Parker - Unlimited - Southbank Centre

Performance: 8 September 2012
Reviewed by Germaine Cheng - Tuesday 11 September 2012

Claire Cunningham & Gail Sneddon's 'Ménage à Trois'

Claire Cunningham & Gail Sneddon – Ménage à Trois
Janice Parker Private Dancer

“No beard; a well-maintained moustache is acceptable. Looks good in a hat. Never wears socks in sandals.”
I think I’d have to agree. In her own voice over, accompanied by projected text and pixelated images scrolling across the set, Claire Cunningham tells us some of the requirements for her ideal man in her highly introspective Ménage à Trois. A collaborative project with choreographer and video designer Gail Sneddon, the production is a poignant look at the esoteric socio-psychological implications of disability – one of 29 commissions featuring work by deaf and disabled artists in Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival – running in parallel with the London 2012 Paralympics.

On an emotional arc that I mirror, Cunningham is at once anti-Cupid – opposed to any notion of romanticism. We first see her on stage like Alice down a rabbit hole, peering into a tall, pendulum-shaped cupboard, her back to us. Curioser and curioser I grow towards this resolute woman on four steady legs.

I won’t deny my initial scepticism. With the exhaustive list of qualities (outward and inward) she’d like in her ideal man, Cunningham, I thought, would only be satisfied with a man she fashioned. But as she assembled a crutch scarecrow, put a shirt on him and dove into his outspread arms, they wouldn’t wrap around her. Desperate for affection, she flings herself exasperatedly towards her crutch-man and clings on dearly, to no avail. Her crutches are more than nifty arm extensions with which she can momentarily defy gravity; Cunningham breathes life into them, willing them to recognise her longing for love and reciprocate her affection.

Christopher Owen – a real man – emerges from within the cupboard, buried beneath a mountain of crutch Lego. She has placed him there, denying herself the possibility of a real human relationship. Cunningham is encased in her own rejection, inadequacy and fear. Putting on a façade, donning a red gown with a sculptural cascade of crutch parts, she keeps her distance and remains indifferent to the loving reception she is being shown. The small gesture of Cunningham extending her hand across the table is the start of an intricate, dynamic duet. He is lying on the floor and she steps onto the palms of his hands briefly before playfully shunting off. I maintain a flicker of hope for the pair; however it appears Cunningham can’t shed her complexes – but she has learnt how to stand on her own two feet.

Janice Parker’s Private Dancer features a roofless, windowless house with five rooms, each decorated by its unique occupant. Designer Richard Layzell invites us into his labour of love, playing host to the 40 audience members (turned party guests). At first it feels intrusive, almost illegal, not unlike sneakily exploring the upstairs of a host’s house. The way each room is furnished is incredibly revealing of the cast member who inhabits it – one is adorned with elaborate Indian costumes in shades of red, gold and black and another has family pictures plastered on every wall. They have turned Layzell’s house into a home.

It is difficult to distinguish cast from audience as the group of us circle around Layzell’s creation, until a trio unfolds behind me and an arm is gracefully raised overhead. We are then stopped and our host explains that doors to these rooms will be shut and we might be fortunate to be invited in. There is an unexplainable, rather magical sense of emotionally charged peace in the air. People stop speaking, seemingly in fear of breaking the somewhat sacred atmosphere.

Guests emerge from rooms with a sense of admiration and respect for the dancer – the person – who’s so generously given of themselves in such fleeting moments. I am taken by the hand and led to a chair where I take a seat and the door is closed behind me. One side of the rectangular room is lined with a table on which is placed a large variety of craft material in every colour of the rainbow. Amanda Noble’s right hand weaves an imaginary pattern, and as she crosses both hands and places them on her chest, she smiles; no fanfare, a whole lot of heart. And I do likewise.

Germaine Cheng is a graduate of the Rambert School of Ballet & Contemporary Dance. She writes for English National Ballet’s Dance is the Word blog and contributes regularly to

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