Interview: Claire Cunningham, dancer

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TINY, pretty, and with a birdlike daintiness that completely belies her very dry sense of humour - in many ways Claire Cunningham is exactly what you'd imagine a dancer to look like.

• Cunningham does not see her performances as "disability pieces"

Actually coming to think of herself that way, though, has been a long, complex process, for a number of reasons.

"Just being a disabled person on a stage is still inherently political, whether you like it or not," she says. "I think most disabled artists are aware of it; that everything you do can be read in a certain way.

Some people would see my works as issue-based because they relate to my body and therefore they relate to disability. I don't feel that they are 'disability pieces' - when I first started out, I just didn't have the confidence to work on a subject outside of what I knew, and what I knew was my body."

Diagnosed with osteoporosis and arthrogryposis as a baby, Cunningham, who grew up in Kilmarnock, managed to have a fairly normal childhood. At 14, however, a fall from her bike resulted in broken legs and crutches.

Given her conditions and the physical changes of puberty, some discs in her back compacted, and her legs would break and re-break until she was 18. The crutches, she was told, were a temporary measure. She just needed to stay on them for six more months; then a year…

As we stand around in her friend's kitchen discussing the photoshoot, Cunningham, who turns 33 today, perches halfway up a crutch she's leaned against the wall with a nonchalant agility reminiscent of the street performers you see on unicycles.

Having spent her entire adult life working out the complex balancing act necessary to live between those two metal bars, her body is uniquely suited for a career in physical performance. It just took her 19 years, and a lot of persuasion, to realise it.

"I've gained this huge amount of upper body strength from the crutches, which in my early twenties I found really unfeminine,' she says. 'I hated it - all this bulk to my shoulders and chest. My solution was to try to ignore it."

After school, Cunningham trained as a classical singer and went to work with inclusive musical theatre company, Sounds of Progress, as a vocalist. I mention that the choice of singing, where the creative focus exists outside the body, seems significant, and Cunningham agrees.

"Yeah. Don't look at me, don't worry about the way I look, don't worry about the way I walk, just listen to the song. It appealed to me: how my body was was completely irrelevant to whether the song had an effect on you."

By 27, though, the way she felt about her body, and the crutches, was beginning to change.

"I'd just about accepted that the crutches were there for good; the upper body strength was a by-product that I couldn't get rid of, and I needed it. Having seen some aerial performance in a show I'd been in with Communicado, it occurred to me I could use this strength to do that. I absolutely did not want to dance, though."

She trained with Glasgow-based aerial specialists Company Chordelia, then applied for a job with inclusive dance company Blue Eyed Soul, who were looking for a disabled aerial dancer.

"I completely ignored the fact it said dancer. What I did was in the air, therefore not dance, I thought. In my complete naivety."

It was in this job that Cunningham formed one of the most significant professional relationships of her life, with visiting American choreographer Jess Curtis.

"The poor man was presented with me, first day of rehearsal, going 'Ah'm no a dancer! Ah'm no dancin'!' But he was patient, and that was the turning point: I had my eyes completely opened to the potential of movement.

"Jess works in contact improvisation, where there is no set choreography: it's based around the body that you have. And everything started from there."

Curtis became fascinated by the relationship Cunningham had with her crutches, the way she sat on them during tea breaks, the way she co-existed with them.

"Until then it hadn't even occurred to me that what I did was unusual. He made me interested in what I could do, as opposed to just a choreographer or director playing with it."

From here, her confidence strengthened, Cunningham successfully applied for a Creative Scotland development and research grant of 30,000.

The hugely acclaimed double bill of works, ME (Mobile/Evolution) she's been touring for the past couple of years grew out of that: fascinating composites of aerial work using crutches, singing, humour-spiked autobiographical narrative, and yes, dance.

She's won awards, been invited to perform all over the world, and last year was named one of 50 "Women to Watch" in the UK cultural sector by the Cultural Leadership Programme. For someone who six years ago was still awkwardly deflecting attention from her body, surely this much visibility is a dizzying change?

"Yes. Exactly. Going from not wanting to be seen, and just heard, to working in a medium that's completely about being seen, where with my crutches I have the capacity to be ten feet wide in the space, is an extreme. It was hugely emotional.

"In Evolution, I chose a very minimal costume, partly parodying that clich in contemporary dance where the dancers all wear little pants; but it was also about giving permission to look at my body.

"Society wants to look at things that are different; disabled people do get stared at in the street. All the time. But this is about saying to an audience: I'm going to let you look at my body, on my terms. So. Now you've seen me. We've got that out of the way. Let's look at the work."

ME (Mobile/Evolution) is at Gilmorehill Theatre, Glasgow, on 20 April and at the Aros Centre, Portree, Isle of Skye, on 28 April