It was watching Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special on TV that first caused Claire Cunningham to fall in love with the king of rock and roll. The internationally renowned choreographer was a teenager, and was struck by the reinvigorated rawness of a talent that had been effectively neutered over the previous few years by appearing in a succession of schmaltz-laden big-screen rom-coms. Music had moved on in Elvis’ absence, but now he was back with a more mature attitude which nevertheless retained both the untamed talent and the voice that had made him an international superstar.
“He made everything look effortless,” says Cunningham, who brings her new show, Thank You Very Much, to Glasgow next week. “His voice seemed to me to have this extraordinary range, especially on his early 50’s songs. It was initially as a singer I fell in love with Elvis, but there was the interpretation of the songs and the performing of them as well. I became really fascinated with people who are extraordinary performers.
“There was this moment watching the ’68 Comeback Special on the telly, and seeing this guy who was clearly a bit nervous about having all these fans at his feet, but who was also so relaxed jamming with his band. There’s always this distinction between people who are either great singers or great performers, then every now and then someone like Elvis comes along and knows how to do both. Watching him, I was just mesmerised by the way he had the audience in the palm of his hand.”
Eventually Cunningham lost sight of her adolescent fandom and moved onto other things, not least of which her own career as a performer. Until, that is, the power of Elvis eventually caught up with her. The result in Thank you Very Much sees Cunningham lead a quartet of disabled performers in a National Theatre of Scotland production developed with five Elvis Presley impersonators.
“I had this silly idea at one point, about the phrase, Elvis has left the building,” Cunningham says of the show’s roots. “I wondered how long it would take Elvis to leave the building if he was in a wheelchair, or whether he’d even be able to get in the building, and I started to look at him as a choreographer. The way he moved is fascinating. There were no straight lines. Everything was asymmetric. At one point he would limp, and drag his leg across the stage, and the way he moved, it had something of what I call a crip aesthetic.
“I felt I recognised gestures in Elvis’ movement that make him look disabled, and there was this idea that he was somehow out of control because of the fact that he was shaking. There was this idea as well of him being nicknamed Elvis the Pelvis, and how he could just be reduced to a pelvis, and could only be filmed from the waist up. His body was considered to be so dangerous that it couldn’t be seen. That sounded very familiar, that a body is considered to be too upsetting for non-disabled people.”
Cunningham visited South Wales for the annual Porthcawl Elvis Festival, where a stream of Elvis tribute acts entertain the late king’s devotees each year.
“The whole town is taken over by Elvis impersonators,’ says Cunningham. “There wasn’t a square inch where people weren’t getting up and having a go, and there was a real sense of community and a love of Elvis, and I really wanted to understand the passion that went with that. I wanted to see how the Elvis impersonators moved, and how they learnt that movement. As someone who came to dance without conventional methodology or technique, I really wanted to hear these people explain how their movement worked, and how it felt in the body.”
Cunningham approached several of the tribute artists with a view to teaching Cunningham’s company how they create their very individual interpretations of Elvis.
“I think some of them were a bit confused,” she says of the assorted Elvis impersonators, whose voices are heard in the show. “As a proposition, it was probably quite strange for them, because they’d probably never taught what they did before. Each one had their own different style, and I ended up doing a bit of match-making, pairing each tribute artist up with a particular performer, and let them each bring their own thing to it. None of my performers really had any interest in Elvis beforehand, so it was fascinating seeing them working together and finding their own way of doing things.”
Thank You Very much premiered earlier this year in a social club at Manchester International Festival, who co-commissioned the show with the NTS and Perth Festival in association with tanzhaus nrw and Dance Umbrella. With the show performed on a dancefloor, and the audience seated at cabaret style tables, this made for a less formal, more speak-easy environment. After years producing a lot of solo work, this has all been quite a leap for Cunningham.
“It’s quite massive,” she says. “It’s my first ensemble work, and my first site-specific work, and one of the reasons I wanted to make it was to not be as alone onstage. There’s a liberation in doing solo work, but it’s also really lonely, and I wanted to be part of a company.”
Like Elvis, then, Cunningham has a team around her for a kind of autobiographical cabaret that sees all those onstage enjoy the spotlight for who they are. The Elvis songs that are there may be deconstructed to be largely unrecognisable, but this doesn’t stop Cunningham having her favourite.
“There’s a lot I like,” she says, “but it’s probably Can’t Help Falling in Love, which might be because it’s the song I’ve the longest history with. My mum was an Elvis fan, and she had a single of it, so it’s the one I know the most. Then, once I saw the ’68 Special, I nagged my mum to buy these Readers Digest compilations. I mostly only listened to the early stuff and the late stuff, and I was drawn to the ballads rather than the fast stuff, because I didn’t move fast. The only exception was Suspicious Minds, and that’s just because it’s a brilliant song.”
Thank You Very Much, Couper Institute, Glasgow, October 31-November 3.
The Herald, October 23rd 2019