Getting skills for performance

 8 February 2011

Performer Claire Cunningham describes how using crutches gave her the physical abilities to create a career in dance.

Starting out in dance

"I work in movement and dance, combining it with aerial, text and voicework as well.

"I trained originally as a singer. When I left university, I could not find out how you actually worked in the business as a classical singer."

Working with disability in the arts

"I had this idea at the back of my mind that I certainly wanted to do something that contributed to the notion that people with impairments could consider the arts as a viable career. It's not a therapy and it's not a leisure activity, it doesn't need to be seen in these terms. Quite often the arts in line with people with disabilities is construed as being therapeutic only.

"Because I've used crutches since I was 14, the upper-body strength was there. I began to think, could I actually use it?"

"I fell in with a company called Sounds of Progress, who are a music theatre company based in Glasgow. They work specifically to train people with learning and physical impairments to become musicians.

"So I toured with them as a singer in that production and then got a job with them on a part-time basis as an arts administration assistant."

Expanding your skills in performance

"At the end of the day, all I wanted to do was work purely as a performer, to try and exist only doing that and not having to do administration to pay the mortgage as well.

"I began to think that I needed to expand my skills and be more employable as a performer. I applied and got onto a course which the BBC ran when they were trying to address the fact that they didn't have enough disabled actors on television. So I got a role in that and got some training in drama with them.

"The other notion that I'd had was because I've used crutches since I was 14 - because I have a physical impairment - I have a lot of upper-body strength. I'd always hated it. It seemed like this very rather unfeminine attribute.

"I began to recognise that the upper-body strength was there, whether I liked it or not. Then I began to think, could I actually use it? Could I actually use this to earn money, to be very blunt about it? Could I make use of it? And I thought about aerial work.

"By some coincidences, I actually met somebody who worked as an aerial performer and who offered to give me some one-to-one training. I gained some skills in working on silks and a little bit of rope, and met an American choreographer called Jess Curtis who introduced me to a dance form called contact improvisation. It's a way of moving that you use your own physicality. Gradually in the making of this piece, Jess really changed my mind about what was possible.

"Now I earn a living working purely as a performer, and in the last two years I started to make my own work, which was something I never intended to do, but it just naturally began to evolve. So now I get called a choreographer, which seems very strange."

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