Bill Shannon is a lot of things: dancer, illustrator, actor, sculptor, multimedia artist, and skateboarder, to name a few. He's perhaps best known for his unique dance style, however, which has earned him the nickname Crutchmaster: he incorporates sturdy metal objects that are associated more with broken limbs than graceful choreography.
The crutches are more than a prop. Shannon needs them to deal with the effects of Legg-Calvé-Perthes, a condition he developed at age five. A temporary loss of blood flow to the hips results in instability in the joints and can ultimately lead to severe degenerative arthritis.
But being labelled as disabled—or, for that matter, as a hip-hop dancer, performance artist, video producer, filmmaker, nice guy, whatever—isn't something that sits well with the almost-40 Nashville native.
“People always feel the need to categorize,” Shannon says on his hands-free device while driving into Washington, D.C., where he's about to mount three video installations and multiple dance performances at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. “It makes it easier for people to grasp concepts if they can put things in little boxes. It makes it easier for people to follow a certain narrative. I can't help what people write or say about me, but I'm getting a little tired of that narrative.”
The Art Institute of Chicago fine-arts grad will be in Vancouver this month to perform in the Kickstart Festival, which is presented by Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture. He emphasizes that he's pleased to be coming to the West Coast and that he's thankful for the opportunity. But he still bristles at the fact that being defined by his physical condition shifts the focus away from the essence of his art.
“I guess people think I'm making the most of a bad situation,” says Shannon, who now lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and their two kids. “But I don't want people coming to see me because I'm disabled. The people I want coming to my show are the ones who are also going to see Marie Chouinard or Ronald Brown—people who care about good dance.”
What makes Shannon's dance so good isn't just his innovative use of crutches, which he's modified to have curved ends, but his vast range of influences.
Although Shannon spent most of his childhood using crutches, he was able to function without them for several years after he turned 11. He was agile—and determined—enough to take up break dancing and skateboarding. Not much of a daredevil, he developed a “mellow type of flow style” in both.
In the early '90s, his condition had him back on crutches. He started using a skateboard simultaneously, devising his own way of covering ground without a car while living in Chicago. The unusual combination opened up a whole new world of possibilities for his choreography.
He started experimenting with balance and transfer of weight. Throw street dance, hip-hop, martial arts, acrobatics, and even the gestures of silent-film actors into the mix, and Shannon has created an ultracool hybrid.
His movement mesmerizes. He manoeuvres his crutches so fluidly that they become extensions of his arms. He uses them in the most startling ways: he props himself up on them and freezes in midair, crosses one over the other to form a lopsided X upon which he balances, and, in a gravity-defying gesture, holds one crutch horizontally against the other and jumps on top, posing like a skateboarder pulling off a daring aerial.
He has invented a new language, one he's dubbed the “Shannon technique” and one he's determined to document—see his Web site. He's given his moves names like “splitmids” and “heelholds”.
And he's perfected them, displaying his finesse everywhere from the Kitchen in New York to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He's also contributed to Cirque du Soleil's Varekai, choreographing an aerial act and a solo on crutches.
In Vancouver, he'll perform Spatial Theory at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on March 20 and 21. Set to music by DJ Excess, the work, which is being presented in partnership with the Vancouver International Dance Festival, features movement, monologues, and video installations. Spatial Theory shares a bill with Peggy Baker's Geometry of the Circle, a duet for dancer Alison Denham and musician Mark Brose. On March 21 only, Baker herself performs her solo earthling.
Like Shannon's other shows, Spatial Theory doesn't aim to convey a particular theme or message.
“My work is about creative problem solving,” Shannon says. “Thinking creatively has always been the way for me to survive.”
He says his hips are hurting more these days. Whereas rest and ice used to provide relief, he now takes painkillers regularly. He's contemplating having his hips replaced, even though he's considered too young for the surgery.
Dealing with his condition at this stage in life is just one more problem Shannon will no doubt solve creatively. Chances are he'll come up with a whole new series of mind-bending steps along the way.