Claire Cunningham, Belfast Festival Artist in Residence

The disabled artist on challenging perceptions of disability and religion with latest multi-disciplinary production

The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's is in place partly to promote contemporary dance, and has a long history of welcoming the very best international performers, and working with Northern Ireland's finest exponents of this most ephemeral of art forms, on various Belfast stages.

For his second programme at the helm, current festival director and informed dance enthusiast Richard Wakely – also board member of Dance Ireland and founder of the Edinburgh Festival's annual Irish contemporary dance strand of events – keeps the faith.

Fittingly, the 2014 Belfast Festival artist in residence is Claire Cunningham, choreographer and multi-disciplinary artist who admits 'sometimes I think of myself as an artist, sometimes a disabled artist', having been born with osteoporosis. Cunningham's ambition for her new role is simple: to change perceptions.

Guide Gods, the original work that Cunningham will perform in the Skainos Centre in east Belfast from October 21 – 22, should do that. Throughout the production, Cunningham performs on crutches, which she has relied on since childhood. Interestingly, however, God Guides has its origins in Cambodia.

'It came out of a visit to Cambodia last year when I was researching a new piece on land mines,' Cunningham explains. 'I was interested in land mine survivors and the country has a high percentage of disabled people.

'While I was there I met someone who was physically impaired because he'd had polio as a child. He told me two things – that he was a Buddhist monk but wasn't supposed to be as he was disabled and was unfrocked after five years. The other thing was he attributed his disability to karma.'

Cunningham was shocked, and says it was the first time she had encountered this particular world view, hard to prove or disprove or even challenge. But it forced her to think about her own assumptions, a feeling which crystallised on the return journey to her native Glasgow.

'Coming back to Scotland, my instinct was to challenge it, but I felt I had to look at my own perspective which was political, to do with questions of equality rather than faith. But I also started to question what is contained in people's faith, in the religions of the world.'

Cunningham concluded that her own ignorance influenced the way she reacted towards people of other religons. 'I didn't know anybody who had religious beliefs, so why did I have these views?' 

This soul searching by a non-believer led to the creation of Guide Gods, possibly Claire Cunningham's least straightforwardly dance-led piece to date. Nor is it a particularly didactic piece, as Cunningham acknowledges the tension between entertainment and philosophising. 'I didn't want it to be me on a soapbox for an hour.'

So what is it? Well, Guide Gods is a piece involving dance, a spoken commentary and a lot of tea cups, which morph into talking heads and are a reference to the way cuppas represent an almost universal panacea. Audience members will also hear excerpts from a series of interviews Cunningham conducted about faith, disability and deafness with people from various cultures.

In fact, Cunningham – who has performed in Northern Ireland a few times before – travelled to Belfast as part of her research. She notes wryly that the taxi drivers' concern that it would be tough to get Northern Irish people, weary of religious conflict, to talk about faith was unfounded. 'The difficulty was getting people to stop talking!'

Cunningham adds that when she recorded interviews with people in Belfast, the results were sometimes unexpected. 'Religion is much closer to the surface here, but although it's a sensitive subject, they didn't talk about sectarianism. It was refreshing for people to be given another focus.'

Far from ending up cynical following many long chats about belief, doctrine, scripture and the like, she uncovered a new respect for some aspects of religion. 'I found a space to respect people's right to faith. It's easy to be cynical but there are a lot of good qualities in religion,' Cunningham argues.

'It was important in the work to open the subject up as I wanted it to be something people of faith could also come to rather than feel vilified. I wondered how I could make people care about the audio voices they hear and not feel apathetic or maybe overwhelmed. It was a huge responsibility.'

Cunningham most certainly succeeded. A review of the London performance earlier this month described the production as 'a humorous critique', and referenced the Christian songs she Cunningham herself sings during the performance, including Handel’s 'Messiah', which 'mention disability as something that needs to be cured'.

When interviewing people about their views on disability and religion, Cunningham reveals that none of the interview subjects registered on what you might call the 'Glenn Hoddle end of things', where disability is viewed as some sort of punishment for sin. 'No, but it was frightening because all the things I get angry about, the different stereotypes that perpetuate negativity, were the same perspectives I had about religion.'

The music composed for Guides Gods by Derek Nisbet is important in Cunningham's performances, partly because she is a trained soprano – music was her original vocation. 'I come from a musical family and am classically trained. When I was young, I saw some dance but not ballet. We didn't go to the panto but I do remember going to musical theatre like The Sound of Music, The King and I.'

An artistic campaigner, Cunningham dances in an outspoken, oftentimes confrontational way. The audience for Guide Gods, for example, enter the auditorium under arches of crutches, and in her 2012 work Menage a Trois, which formed part of the London Olympiad, the central figure created a man for herself out of crutches. The result recalls Da Vinci's famous 'Vitruvian Man', a drawing of the human figure within a circle.

Honesty is a Cunningham trademark, and her Olympiad piece contains the following speech: 'Sometimes I feel like a machine. I forget I was made to touch skin, to feel heat, breath, to have someone's smile pressed against my neck. I wasn't made to click. But with you I click. We. Click. Like a clique, a trio, a menage a trois.'

Cunningham says that, while creating that production, she had to grapple with her own prejudice about the attractiveness of disability. 'Menage a Trois is about looking for love and partnership. When young I wouldn't have gone out with a disabled person, thinking they were not attractive. I don't believe that now obviously, but there's a need for truth.'

Away from the studio and the stage, then, what is Belfast's latest artist in residence really like? Cunningham arrives in Belfast just weeks after Scotland's independence referendum, which sent shock waves across the UK and Ireland. Asked about her views on the vote, she replies diplomatically that the debate is good and she is a 'creative Scot'.

When not working, Cunningham turns off by escaping into crime drama, often Danish. 'And I am a sucker for a good Netflix season.' She adds that she is looking forward to her Belfast Festival appointment, and taking part in discussions with students at Queen's University and workshops with people from the Arts and Disability Forum.

Guide Gods runs at the Skainos Centre, Belfast from October 21 – 22, and the Duncairn Centre on October 23, part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's.