Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods

Victoria Hall, Fremantle, February 12

It would be so easy, one imagines, for Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods to be bristling with anger and reproach as it considers how religion deals with disability. At best it is a fast path to heaven, no further heavy lifting required, at worst it’s a manifestation of the devil’s work, and there are variations in between to do with concepts such as karma. Mostly it’s seen as imperfection in sore need of repair.

But brimstone isn’t Cunningham’s way. She is curious, intellectually rigorous and open to experience and new ideas. Most tellingly she is interested in and sympathetic to beliefs that, as a person of no religion, she does not share. Cunningham started out knowing very little and ended, as we discover, with a sophisticated, non-judgmental appreciation of the complexities of the field into which she had stumbled. She packs a lot into about 70 deceptively gentle minutes.

Guide Gods is described in part as a dance work, if you need to give it a label, but labels are not terribly helpful in the world Cunningham inhabits. She has been using crutches since she was a teenager and is, ipso facto, an artist with a disability. So before she even opens her mouth there are perceptions about her that may not be accurate or fair.

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Claire Cunningham in Guide Gods. Photo: Brian Hartley

Osteoporosis has given Cunningham wonky legs that need a lot of support, although as she reveals late in the show she can do without crutches for short periods. That fact can create problems, as Cunningham explains in a video in which she discusses Give Me a Reason to Live, her second Perth International Arts Festival show (it opens March 2 and also explores religious themes). Disabled people can be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They need to show they can be useful participants in society, but also disabled enough to have a right to the help they require. Marginalised people have to prove how capable they are but also prove their failings, she says.

This is territory both knotty and delicate to which Cunningham brings considerable wit and wisdom in a label-defying performance. Let’s just say Guide Gods involves the following forms: dance, song, theatre, conversation, reportage, investigation and activism with the offer of a cup of tea and a biscuit at the end. And that in Cunningham’s hands it’s a persuasive, seductive mix.

The setting is simple. In a lovely, unpretentious hall the audience is seated on chairs or cushions on the floor on either side of a smallish performing area. At one end there is a set of steps, at the top of which are shelves holding objects with religious significance. At the other end is an archway constructed from crutches (Karen Tennant designed) through which Cunningham’s first appears. It looks rather splendid and gives Cunningham’s entrance a degree of surreal pomp while eschewing extravagance.

The atmosphere of a humble church gathering is also greatly enhanced by the contribution of musician Derek Nisbet on that most excellent instrument, the harmonium. Yes, there are hymns involved – Cunningham has a sweet, small, true voice – although she makes you think anew about sentiments you might once have thought praiseworthy. Take a trawl through Amazing Grace and you’ll see where she disagrees with it.

Central to the piece is Cunningham’s movement language, her strong upper body providing a strong contrast to her softer lower half. Cunningham starts in shoes but soon her feet are bare so one can see how different they look from those of most dancers, with their high arches and sharply defined outlines. But then she doesn’t do what most dancers do. Cunningham also asks her audience to remove their shoes, something that echoes the requirements of some religions but can suggest a comfy casualness or, more interestingly, vulnerability, or all of the above.

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Claire Cunningham in Guide Gods. Photo: Brian Hartley

Cunningham sometimes sits on the floor and there, her legs are on more equal terms with her upper body but when the crutches come into play there’s a whole new dynamic. Cunningham can project herself forward at perilous angles or create big swirling patterns as if she were a slalom skier. Ascending and descending stairs becomes a detailed choreography in itself and when dancing around and on the teacups that bring this discussion of big ideas to the personal level, her crutches describe graceful, sweeping arcs that potently extend her reach. The way she covers ground makes her look commanding and powerful.

Those choreographic decisions aren’t just physical and theatrical. They do what we go to dance for: they transform a multiplicity of ideas into eloquent, illuminating gestures that may have a variety of interpretations and excite a range of emotional responses, depending on the viewer. In Guide Gods Cunningham quietly makes a case for autonomy, freedom of expression, empathy, tolerance, open-mindedness and open-heartedness. No wonder PIAF artistic director Wendy Martin has asked her to be artist in residence at this year’s festival.

Guide Gods is performed in Perth at Burt Hall, St George’s Cathedral, February 17-21. Cunningham’s Give Me a Reason to Live is at PICA March 2-5. Cunningham performs Give Me a Reason to Live at North Melbourne Town Hall as part of the Festival of Live Art, March 9-11.

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