Brighton Festival has been home to some big hitters of the dance world; last year's festival was curated by Hofesh Shechter, and this year has seen Vincent Dance Theatre celebrate its 21st anniversary with a 5 hour long performance. However, it was last night's very small scale one woman show that left a big impression. Give Me a Reason to Live is Claire Cunningham's new work inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Simple and moving with a glorious accompanying sound score, it is a raw, emotional work that lingers long after its 35-minute running time.

Claire Cunningham © Ben Nienhuis
Claire Cunningham
© Ben Nienhuis

Cunningham is a disabled dancer who uses crutches that both restrict and extend her movement, creating a physicality that evolves as she manipulates these supports. The work opens with Cunningham shaking and struggling in the corner of the stage, beating herself against the walls like a moth at a window. Turned away from the audience, in the darkness, her crutches become first wings and then the shackles that keep her from flying. Images of wings and the sense of trying to reach some higher place are present throughout, referencing the religious aspect of Bosch's paintings as well as Cunningham's disability.

The work is based around a series of physical tasks that strengthen the physical in religion and ritual, as well as giving us an uncompromisingly honest view of Cunningham's physicality and how she deals with her disability. These tasks are captivating, such as the moment she folds herself over the handles of the crutches and swings there, hopping from hands to feet over and over again in hypnotic repetition. Others are very moving; she tries to push herself up from the floor, but slips and falls by being pulled in the wrong direction by her crutches. Again, the strength of the work lies in Cunningham's decision to keep doing these tasks until she simply cannot do them any more. While being a short work, repetition and deep investigation into simple concepts creates an expansive time frame giving her, and us, time to rest, think and breathe.

In contrast to the Medieval inspiration of Bosch paintings, Cunningham also draws on present day experiences, referencing the disability welfare cuts that are making life harder and harder for disabled people in Britain. This is starkly brought to the forefront as Cunningham strips down to a vest and underwear and quietly stands in front of us, letting us see her as she is.

Claire Cunningham © Ben Nienhuis
Claire Cunningham
© Ben Nienhuis
As her body begins to shake under the strain of standing unaided, the power of her work is clear. This is not sensational or provocative work; she is simply letting us witness her without layers of theatre or dance for a moment, and it is genuinely moving and oddly uplifting.

Give Me a Reason to Live is a quietly intelligent work that manages to be both devastating and full of joy. For all the struggle present on stage, it really does take flight.

****1