Ways of Looking; Disability as Ability

By Mary Brennan


Some years back, I reviewed a wonderful piece of devised movement that took themes from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly and–instead of dutifully representing the narrative–conjured up a sense of Butterfly’s world and its rigidly formal culture while poignantly expressing the fragile, vulnerable beauty she shared with her namesake. In the weeks that followed I was buttonholed in various foyers by people who’d read the review: some were indignant–I hadn’t said it was an integrated company who were performing–while others were simply delighted by the very same omission.

Actually, I’d been so caught up in the joy and invention of the piece that doing a tally of those with learning difficulties, those with physical disabilities and those who seemed to have neither–but who could have been hearing or sight impaired – was never going to be a critical priority. But that polarised feedback still shadows my thoughts when–as increasingly happens nowadays–I see performances where wheelchair users are key driving forces in the action, or the dancers have special needs. Because I know that for some–off-stage and on–these performances represent crucial building blocks in their campaign for more equal opportunities across the board, but yet I wonder if the art should–can–be separated from the very real social and political issues that still attend how we respond to disabled people. I have no ready reckoner on this one: but the bottom-line of ‘is it good work?’ always seems to surface… and that’s the standpoint that informs the review.

As I write this, I’m remembering an interview I once did with David Toole when he was dancing with CandoCo, a forerunner in the field of UK integrated companies. He remarked, with a mix of amusement and exasperation, that some audiences were fine with integration until, as happened in an Emilyn Claid piece, the guy in the wheelchair (him) started to show anger, aggression or worse still, sexual arousal. Getting ‘hands on’ with a gorgeous, blonde able-bodied girl produced what he felt was a distinctly hostile, ‘distancing’ reaction from the audience. He joked that he could hear spines snapping bolt upright, in innate disapproval.

I still find this a disquieting, fascinating issue: it implies ‘degrees of permission’ that are different for artists with disability–and questions of what gives audiences a ‘feel-good’ factor when watching these artists perform. Toole reckoned, back then, that there was a kind of patronising, allowance-making in the part of audiences that stopped well short of recognising him (with his lack of lower limbs) as a functioning male with hormones, desires and imagination. In turn, of course, this meant that work which entailed every bit as much professional rigour, skill and performative ability as, say, a ballet dancer doing pointe-work, wasn’t rated or understood as being of a similar calibre.

Now anyone who has met Claire Cunningham–currently working with Jess Curtis in Under the Radar–will soon realise two things. One: Claire, who has used crutches since her mid-teens because of osteoporosis, has a training regime that is as demanding and strenuous as any dancer, athlete or aerial artist. Two: Claire’s way of moving–her intention of, as she says, “making disability an ability”–has a distinctive aesthetic that is truly ground-breaking, not least because it takes her, and us, out of dance-theatre’s comfort zone.

Claire, already possessed of a thrilling singing voice which– had training colleges been more accommodating–might well have taken her into opera or concert recitals, could have continued working with Sounds of Progress, a Glasgow-based integrated music-theatre company. Instead, she pushed her body and her thinking in new directions. Decided to find ways of using the upper body strength she had developed through using crutches–and fixed on aerial work because she “felt more confident relying on my arms than my legs.” She also joked that she could just as easily fall and fracture something outside her own front door as she could falling from a trapeze – then, to her own surprise, discovered that the floor work she was doing in dance classes was building muscular strength in her back and her legs. I still have the e-mail where she said “The most obvious and exciting part is that I have found I have grown 3cm–a girl with osteoporosis grows 3 cms at 29 years of age!” Thanks to a Creative Scotland Award–a financing initiative for outstanding projects–she was en route to Pittsburgh, at the time, to spend six weeks in one-to-one workshops with Bill Shannon, aka The Crutchmaster.

It’s the kind of learning curve that many a professional dancer, with no disability to contend with, would find challenging. For Claire, however, it is only one aspect of what she is working towards: a movement vocabulary that is indeed integrated, with her crutches and her physicality an intrinsic part of its line, dynamic and expressiveness. Personally, I can’t wait to review her first shows in Scotland.

This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of In Dance.