Disability, religion, and accessibility as response-ability: review of Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods

Daria Hartmann reviews the German premiere of Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods at Tanzhaus Düsseldorf, November 2018.

In Guide Gods, the Scottish dance choreographer and disability activist Claire Cunningham uses a potent mix of dance, storytelling, music and audience participation to create a conversation about disability and religion.
Entering the wheelchair accessible performance space at Tanzhaus Düsseldorf, one is greeted and guided through a festal gate made of crutches, and invited to wheel, sit, or lie down in a round. The performance is ‘relaxed’ and comes with an audio-description in English, live-typed subtitles in German, an audio loop for hearing aids, braille-guide, guiding system, and a BSL translator. All these translations are integral parts of the performance: the audio guide describes the setup of the stage but also functions as a voiceover, humorously framing the performance in creation-myth-terms: “On the third day, she made the gate of crutches, which is to the left of the organ.“ Each translation is beautiful to appreciate in its own right: for example, I cherish my copy of the bound braille guide which is available upon entry.

Increased accessibility also allows for multiple perspectives and interpretations. This reminds me of the role of BSL translator Charmaine Wombwellin touretteshero’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Not I; Wombwell’s presence on stage offered an interesting interpretation of the play’s ‘silent Auditor’ who, in the script, is noted to perform a “gesture of helpless compassion”(1). The ethical decision to allow for more people to partake in the performance is central to Guide Gods: in the multidimensional piece no translation language is dispensable, and a variety of different perspectives of religious experience is heard.

Claire Cunningham in Guide Gods (Photograph: Brian Hartley)

A nice cup of tea: art as an invitation to conversation

Cunningham’s performance is based on a series of conversations, collected between 2013 and 2017, with disabled people who talked about their experiences with religion. Her interview process started after meeting a Buddhist who believed his disability had a cause in his former life. Cunningham explains how her politics as a disability activist initially made her uncomfortable with this position. She also felt personally distanced from topics of religion, due to awkward experiences such as people offering prayers for her on the street. She realized that her reluctance towards religion had made her unaware of the extent to which disability and religion are personally negotiated. And so she decided to meet people and talk – over a cup of tea. “Everybody – even the extreme agnostic – likes a cup of tea”, she tells us, holding up a cup.

I am reminded of the prominent role of the teacup in Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”. In both shows teacups are a symbol of quiet retreat, common humanity, and conversation in the face of life-threatening judgement. There is no singular way of being queer, disabled, or religious, so the invitation is to remind ourselves of a thing many people like and talk about the complex, multi-layered, and relatable reality of individuals, without judging too soon. As part of the “extension-of-access” art that Cunningham champions, the performance of Guide Gods ends with a cup of tea and time to chat for the audience.

Coerced healing, exclusion of access

As a communal ceremony and a safe space, Guide Gods takes the time to attend to people, stories, and details. Cunningham’s dance performance invites the audience to understand how her movement on crutches unfolds particular ways of being in the world. She shows that how we move through the world defines our experience, and that there is beauty and richness in each individual embodied encounter with the world. When Cunningham asks every spectator to name something they love, the sensibility is turned towardsthe audience. The emphasis on talking and attending to people to break down barriers of understanding allows us to tap into a charged field: how can we critically reflect on, but also respect, personal beliefs and stories?

Guide Gods carefully balances positive exploration of the teachings of different religions with topics such as abuse, structural violence, and exclusion. The interviewees often describe how they are excluded from religious communities: “When I was younger they told me I don’t need to pray five times a day, I would go straight to heaven anyways,” explains a deaf Muslim woman from Glasgow. Participation is further undermined by exclusion of access: “There was no point to go to the Imam because there was no sign language interpreter, so we didn’t understand anything.”

Some voices talk about abuse through coerced healing. Different religious teachings rest on stories of healing that assume a need for cure; healing then becomes exploited as a means of demonstrating divine power.Such narratives of cure and healing are harmful in depicting disability as something negative and undesired, and lead to healing imperatives, which can be abusive for disabled people.

Collaboration and curative effort brings together artists, academics, and clerics

To share her research and work around Guide Gods, Cunningham provides a digital collection of podcast episodes, essays and artworks on her website. It allows for more engagement with the different topics within the performance. The issue of whether people consent to or are coerced to healing is discussed in the episode “consensual healing”of her podcast collection. By offering this carefully produced material, Cunningham makes her approach to research transparent and thereby further broadens access to the complex topics that come up in Guide Gods.

Additionally, Tanzhaus NRW curated a series of talks titled “response-ability”, that offers audience members and the general public space to engage with ideas and problems around disability and religion as well as learning about the production of the piece. Visiting the talks made evident how much Cunningham’s collaborative artistic work has to offer as a form of explorative research. There is little research done at the intersection of disability and religion, as Rabbi and Jewish queer disability scholar Julia Watts Belser (who has collaborated with Cunningham since 2015) points out.

Other religious experts were invited to discuss disability and religion in relation to the piece, for example protestant theologian Marie Hecke. Hecke emphasised how the show offers new perspectives and a more modified vocabulary on embodiment. Accordingly, modern theology acutely lacks a focus on the variety and importance of embodiment. In Germany a theology “after Hadamar” particularly needs to grapple with ideas of normalcy in bodies and ability – in response to the history of euthanasia under the Nazi regime. (Hadamar was a psychiatric hospital that functioned as a site of mass murder of disabled and mentally ill people between 1939 and 1945, to which most Christian institutions acted as bystanders.) To reflect on the complexity and diversity of human bodies is an ethical task that concerns clerics and academics alike; Guide Gods hones in on this by emphasising accessibility, collaboration, and connection through conversations.

By looking at disability and religion through different disciplinary lenses, the conversations made the topics that Guide Gods touches on more accessible to interested (and non-academic) audience members. Cunningham’s efforts and Tanzhaus NRW curation of Guide Gods are impressive practices of dealing with disability and religion that demonstrate how collaboration and accessible performances are necessary to engage conversations.

Further material on and by Claire Cunningham:

Digital collection of podcasts & essays on Guide Gods

Review-Essay on Guide Gods

BBC 4 program on Cunningham’s 2019 project on disability dance

Guide Gods Trailer


(1) Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works, London: Faber and Faber, 2006. Devral Turby, “Incommensurable Corporealities, Tourettesheros Not I” in Contemporary Theatre Review, 2018, online https://www.contemporarytheatrereview.org/2018/touretteshero-not-i/

On tourettesheroes production and its value as a relaxed performance for neurodivergent spectators see: Hannah Simpson,“Tics in the Theatre” The Quiet Audience, the Relaxed Performance and Neurodivergent spectator”, John Hopkins University Press, Vol. 28, No. 3, November 2018,227-238.

Daria Hartmann finished an MA in Medical History and Humanities at the University of York with a thesis on Samuel Beckett, watchful waiting and testimony in medicine. Based in Germany, she follows interdisciplinary research and collaboration in arts, academia & beyond that relate to the medical humanities.

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