Guide Gods

A profound and thought-provoking piece from disabled artist, singer, choreographer and thinker Claire Cunningham

Where would you go to have a conversation about religion, if not Belfast?

The Belfast Festival at Queen's artist-in-residence Claire Cunningham is a canny strategic thinker as well as a nifty dancer. Fleet of foot and quick of wit, she is a true artist, blessed with a glorious mezzo-soprano voice, a pliable body, a restless, wide-ranging imagination and an eye for the quaint and quirky things in life.

Cunningham is also disabled, a fact which feels entirely superfluous were it not that her latest performance piece, Guide Gods, is about that very subject – well, that and religion, two topics about which she feels passionately.

A petite, fine-featured Glaswegian, Cunningham was born with osteoporosis and is unable to walk any distance without crutches. After a lifetime of restricted movement, she has fallen prey to just about every unpleasant cliché in the handbook of perceptions of disability: handicapped, crippled, a failed machine.

But such ill-informed judgements appear only to make her stronger. As a fervent non-believer, she is equally qualified to talk about faith and its presence – or absence – in her world.

The spiritual journey that is Guide Gods began, unexpectedly, on a trip last year to Cambodia, where Cunningham had gone to research a piece on the survivors of land mines. There she met Mr Rong, a defrocked Buddhist priest, who had been ejected from his vocation because of his physical impairment.

Far from sharing Cunningham’s shock reaction, the man – who had contracted polio in childhood – was completely at peace with his expulsion, attributing the outcome to karma. Appalled at what she interpreted as an unacceptable contradiction of compassion versus faith, Cunningham set out to explore these parallel strands, essentially to prove Mr Rong wrong.

Her investigations take her into Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Sikhism, into atheism and agnosticism. As she delves ever more deeply into individual human experiences, she has conversations with religious leaders, academics, deaf and disabled people from Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia… even Aberdeen.

Their voiced testimonies form a cornerstone of the rich soundscape of this piece, which opens with a tapestry of haunting chords and refrains, played on violin and harmonium by composer Derek Nesbit, accompanied by the soft clicking of Louisa McDaid’s simultaneous laptop captioning.

An ornate Archway of Crutches forms a triumphal entry point, a defiant statement of the artist’s intent. On the other side of the space, the visual focus is on a flight of white steps, topped with rows of shelves on which are placed all manner of kitsch religious objects: statues of Buddha, a plaster saint, a seven-branched menorah, rosary beads and a particularly creepy bespectacled nun doll. 'The Harry Potter nun,' as Cunningham laughingly describes it in a post-show conversation.

The steps provide the avenue for some breathtaking set pieces, as Cunningham mounts and ascends them with understated grace and gravity-defying balance, sometimes with a bone china cup and saucer in hand.

Before being admitted into the bright, circular performance space, the audience is invited to shed coats, bags and shoes and then be seated on chairs, stools and cushions arranged neatly. Those who choose the cushions are already, and probably unconsciously, echoing the traditions of the Sikh gurdwara, where all worshippers sit on the floor, thereby establishing a situation of lowly, humble equality.

Apart from her light-footed climbing of the white staircase, the performer, too, remains among us, always at eye level never setting herself above or apart. To kick off proceedings and get the conversation started, she sets out a random collection of teacups and saucers, thereby establishing the eternal truth that there is no better ice-breaker than a nice cup of tea.

They will take on a life of their own, as the receptacles for a chorus of sometimes dissenting sometimes harmonious voices, as attractive stage dressings and as perilously delicate supports to Cunningham’s progress around the stage.

There is intensity in the piece and there is humour too. The great hymn 'Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring' gives an early indication of Cunningham's wonderful singing voice, but in a similar vein to the cryptic pastiche of the Biblical account of the creation of the world, she also uses this and other religious references to make a point.

She launches joyfully into Sydney Carter's popular hymn 'Lord of the Dance' before stumbling over the line 'I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame,'  shaking her head in disbelief. Similarly, 'Amazing Grace' produces the ludicrous claim 'was blind but now I see'.

Even Handel’s 'Messiah' is found to be faulty in its claims of healing. It does not take long for the audience to get the joke, with laughter spreading around the circle as the anticipated lines loom.

Cunningham has a winning smile and a warm engaging presence, which coaxes ready participation from audience and creative team alike. Her message is profound and thought-provoking, her modus operandi spans art forms and breaks down barriers of prejudice, sharply differentiating faith from the acts of the so-called faithful.

She encourages new perspectives on religion and the people who choose to practice or not practice it. In the shared space of the Skainos Centre in east Belfast, an area which has experienced more than its fair share of religious division, she persuasively creates an atmosphere of peace and wellbeing, a bringing together of faiths. It is a rare privilege to be in her company.

The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues in venues across the city until November 1.