By Albert Samaha
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Whenever Bill Shannon leaves his apartment, he attracts stares, comments, finger-pointing. It's no wonder this 32-year-old skater-clubgoer makes his living on stage: His daily sojourns on the street are performances. Shannon, whose new show, AOW: Remix, opens January 21 at Dance Theater Workshop, "walks" by using a skateboard and two rocker-bottom crutches. At clubs he "dances" using the crutches. He looks able-bodiedlean, dark hair, wide-set eyesand in a culture where shows like Jackass set up scenarios to grab our attention, Shannon appears to be taunting us. In reality his unusual locomotion assuages the pain and deterioration caused by Legg-Calvé Perthes disease, a rare disorder that affects the ball-and-socket joint of the hip.
Diagnosed at age five, Shannon was Tennessee's Easter Seals poster child in 1975. At 10 he was doing flips on his crutches, and four years later took up skateboarding (he got arrested for protesting a boarding ban in Pittsburgh in 1988). In his mid twenties, when the disease intensified, he combined the skateboard with the crutches as a way of covering the long, flat blocks of Chicago, where he took interdisciplinary courses at the Art Institute. Today, Shannon's performances merge urban skater culture with a theatrical sense of narrative. Last year Cirque de Soleil asked him to perform in their new production, Varekai. He declined: "I couldn't do it because it would take me off the street and there are days I can't go on stage because of my hips." Instead, he offered to choreograph. Bravo has been airing a documentary, Fire Within, that includes Shannon's work with the performers.
His moniker, "Crutchmaster," refers to his skillful maneuvers, but also reflects his knowledge of the devices. His crutches, self-designed, transform "rocker-bottoms," which were created in 1917 as a way of increasing stride length, resulting in a smoother gait and more secure contact with the ground. Shannon adds high-pressure fuel hose from an auto shop$20 a yard, "which makes four tips"to the bottom of each crutch to make it more "grippy."
"I rebuild leftover ones, inserting new parts and modifications to get them where they are now," he explains, admitting that he has 100 pairs. "People give them to me, and I find them in the garbage. The ones I use now are a whole different grade of aluminum tubingI started out doing sculpture so I know about grades." He also replaces the plastic hand-bars with wooden ones to prevent cracking. "I made a pair out of titanium onceit's strong but flexyworking with an engineer at San Francisco's Exploratorium. We put in shock absorbers." He still has those. "Now I'm ready for the next level of design, but it takes a lot of money." Cirque de Soleil's engineering team worked with Shannon to develop a prototype for the performer in the show who uses crutches.
Most people watching Shannon think he's healthy, or, as he puts it, "They don't have the nerve to say, 'Are you or aren't you?' " He moves on crutches, a condition that confuses those who associate the devices with temporary injury instead of lifelong disease. Using the crutches and skateboard "slows down the process of deterioration" in his hips, he says. "The right one is more damaged than the left, but both are deformed."
What does the pain feel like? "I have this vision of a solid white chalk ball. There's this small mass of nerves at the center. That is the pain I can never get at. The reason why this image is so real to me is because of the impossibility of feeling through chalk. It's a sharp pain surrounded by dullness. But this vision is healing. . . . I think about cracking the ball to massage the center."
On the street, Shannon wears headphones. "I listen to music constantly," he says. "It helps me forget. I consider music fuel." At home, his studio is dominated by two large speakers, turntables, and "a couple hundred gigs of storage." He also keeps a television, computer, and video editing/graphics workstation hooked up to review his street performancesor rather, people's reactions to him on the street.
Shannon describes a common scenario. "I'm entering some locationsay, a cafeteriaand people see that I'm on crutches. That condition has certain associations. Let's say someone makes a big commotion in clearing a row for me to pass by. But what if I didn't intend to go in that direction? People make assumptions based on strictly visual consumption of my conditionwithout verbal communication with me. I call that "condition arriving"the condition arrived but I didn't. I have this ghost-like presence that people see. I think it's something a lot people with physical disabilities experience."
People often get annoyed if he rejects their assistance. "There are the disabled who are thankful to everyone who offers to help. I'm representing this no-man's-land between the efforts of Good Samaritans and my own dexterity. When my condition precedes me it can be maddening."
Onstage, Shannon finds freedom. His shows are like dance inverted: "If you see a dancer running across the stage, arms waving in the air, you would see me running across the room with my legs waving in the air. The distribution of my weight gives the visual appearance as if someone was on their head watching me dance. The style of the dancing conceals the fact that most of the weight is on my shoulders."
His "Shannon technique" breaks down ways to move with four "legs." "It has to do with handling the metal weight of the crutch. It's utilitarian in nature. My moves are like solutions," he says. To do a flarea break-dancing step where the arms hold the body's weight as the legs swing like pendulumsShannon had to re-examine the physics of the movement: "There was a period where I had to think out the relationship to the ground. On crutches I'm three feet off the floor instead of an arm's length."
His moves include "in the saddle," a standing position, armpits on the crutches, hands on the bars; and "high-mids," where the armpits are over the hand-bars. "Finger flip," a term borrowed from skater lingo, describes the threading of the hand through the crutch and wrapping the index finger around the vertical bar. "Floor-work" refers to any time the tips of the crutches are off the floor. "Aerial" describes a move where one tip is on the floor and everything else is elevated. "Pathos" borrows from the B-boying hand-on-head pose, but for Shannon the gaze is downward.
How does he choreograph? "Sometimes a move spontaneously combustskaboom!you just fucking come up with a move that happens. When you've got four extensions of your body going on, chance encounters are high." He says most people think: "If you look like you're having too much fun, it can't be real."
When a Chicago critic called him a "disabled freak," Shannon picked up the phone and "schooled" her about disability. His condition is not a choice, and his movements are not tricks set up to dazzle. Most artists fabricate environments to make us see, think, react. With Shannon, there is no pretending. His performances show us the person: "My shit is profoundly real."
Shannon'sAOW: Remix with Step Fenz Crew plays Dance Theater Workshop January 21, 22, 30, and 31 and February 8 at 7, and February 9 at 2. He can be seen on Bravo Mondays at 9; see bravotv.com/cirque/about.php.