- Bill Shannon at Kumuwuki / Big Wave. Photographer: Chris Herzfeld
Bill Shannon had to change the wheels on his skateboard when he hit the rough textured streets of Goolwa. Surfaces are an occupational hazard for this American improv artist, who mixes street dance, skate and hip hop to create his own brand of creative expression.
Even more challenging; Shannon does it all on a pair of rocker-bottom crutches and with a tonne of don’t mess with me attitude.
He was in the river-port town of Goolwa south of Adelaide for the Regional Arts Australia National Conference, Kumuwuki/Big Wave. As Keynote Artist in Residence, Shannon was everywhere: he opened the four-day gathering of artists, arts workers, and regional and community specialists with an address that was both entertaining and provocative.
He hosted a masterclass and workshop for 10, exploring the idea of public space and its connection with personal identity, and led the ScrLK program. Featuring some of Australia’s best-known disability focused organisations including Back to Back and Restless Dance Theatre, the program presented screenings based around disability-led digital arts projects and discussions on how emerging digital technologies, cultures and the National Broadband Network will significantly affect disability culture in regional areas.
“I was interested in programming Bill Shannon to speak as his practice represented a form of creative resilience that was being discussed as a theme throughout the conference,” said Steve Mayhew, Artistic Director of the 2012 Regional Arts Australia National Conference.
“I was hoping that the experiences from this particular viewpoint and perspective would subtly inform people living in regional areas who are dealing with similar issues, access being a very large example of this,” said Mayhew.
Through his blend of energetic, in-your-face choreography and simple video techniques, Shannon deals with the public’s hopes, assumptions, fears and misinterpretations of what an artist with a disability is. He raises questions around how you engage with public space and how you use your own body as a canvas for performance art and experimentation.
He uncovers a world of prejudices that disabled people encounter daily and questions his methods – often involving a hidden camera – as he readily takes advantage of strangers’ good Samaritan impulses to make his point.
“Performance art grew out of my childhood experience. I was always a spectacle.” said Shannon, speaking at a Disability and Arts Transition Team gathering in Adelaide this week. He demonstrated how he had to walk in a semi squat as a child growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, to alleviate pressure on his malformed hip joints.
He had a brace and crutches and to top it off the leather squeaked when he walked. “It was a very intense spectacle. But I didn’t really have a big emotional reaction to it as a kid.”
Shannon was diagnosed at five with Legg-Calvé Perthes disease, a disorder of the hip joint in children that can limit the amount of high-impact activity that an otherwise healthy child can take part in.
The Crutch Master
One of a series of CRUTCH! videos on Bill Shannon, Directed and Produced by
Sachi Cunningham and Chandler Evans.
Now 42, that kid with crutches is known around New York’s dance scene as the Crutch Master, and is widely sought around the globe to showcase his flamboyant and seriously athletic dance style and to talk about it. He’s become a poster boy for disability, albeit reluctantly.
Shannon said “peer pressure to keep up with the other kids led to a relationship with creativity.”
“I call it creative necessity – creativity as survival to keep up with peers. I was challenged constantly with these hurdles like jumping through the hedge. All the kids would do it and I had to figure out how to do it with my crutches. I had to get creative to keep up.”
Shannon is a showman, to be sure. He’s a performance artist, melding street dance with the influences of skate and hip hop cultures. Armed with a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, he counts poetry and sculpture among his art forms.
And author: he’s working on an outline for a book that will lead readers from his beginnings to the development of the Shannon Technique, a how-to-guide for his style of dancing on the so-called rocker-bottom crutches with U-shaped tips.
He’s a bit of a psychologist too, creating names for some of the scenarios he has encountered when interacting with able-bodied people. There’s faker squared, a reference to the people who think he’s faking his need to use crutches to get around. He can actually walk unassisted but not for long periods or without pain.
“Sometimes I’ll lift up the crutches and do a little tiptoe to give people the satisfaction of thinking they’ve caught me faking. I have the satisfaction of hosting their discovery.”
“If I fake the faking, I take possession of the faking and that’s empowerment,” Shannon said.
And there’s the moment of projected narrative. In one video sequence, a hidden camera shows Shannon’s efforts to pick up a bottle at a marketplace in Russia, while an older local woman looks on, willing him to succeed.
Over the past two decades Shannon’s installations, performances, choreography and video work have been presented in the US and internationally at events, venues and festivals including Sydney Opera House, Tate Liverpool Museum, NYC Town Hall, Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, The Holland Festival, Amsterdam and Temple Bar in Dublin.
Cirque du Soleil
Shannon also completed a project with Cirque du Soleil where he choreographed an aerial duet and a solo on crutches for their 2002 production Varekai.
It was an offer to tour with Cirque du Soleil that prompted Shannon to devise what he calls theShannon Technique. Unable to leave home base for months and endure a grueling performance schedule, Shannon said he started to name his dance moves so that he could pass them onto others.
The Shannon Technique “is a contribution to the history of dance. I never had a class to learn to dance on crutches – I never had the shoulder of the giant to stand on.”
“I decided to lay it all down so that in the future some other individual serious about dancing on crutches can use this as a guide.”
“It’s all about the economy of movement,” he said. As for skating in Goolwa, “it’s like skating on sandpaper. I had to change out the wheels on my skateboard.”