|(Posted 10/7/2004) |
By Jo Roberts for Australia *'s The Age. Edited by Josh Rabinowitz for Skateboarddirectory.com
When your dancing partners are a pair of crutches and a skateboard, you get noticed.
Bill Shannon is turning it on for the photographer. He flips and twirls his athletic body, seemingly defying gravity as he holds a pose. People stop and admire his graceful moves. Some girls are, perhaps, also admiring his dark good looks. Beneath him, however, is what makes this artist so distinctive: a skateboard and a pair of rocker-bottomed crutches.
The photo shoot over, Shannon is off. He glides around Federation Square on his board, crutches wafting beside him like ski stocks. This is his general cruise-down-the-street skating style - "slalom * flatland *". He saves tricks such as flares, uprocks, twirls and glides, finger flips, spinning high-mids and low-bar foot threads for performances.
If he could dance without crutches, Shannon would. Indeed, were it not for his crutches, he would look like any other fit young man. But Shannon is unique. Having to use crutches because of a rare bone disorder contracted in childhood, he has created his own "Shannon Technique", combining skating, hip-hop dancing and his gliding crutches into a style that has earned him the nickname "Crutchmaster" from underground New York * dancers. It has also won him an international reputation and Australians could see why for the first time when he presented Spatial Theory as part of the Melbourne * Fringe Festival.
Spatial Theory is a show that challenges preconceptions of "disability" and physical correctness; an often comedic show that is much about the aesthetic of beautiful movement as it is about the sociology behind how people view and treat disability.
"Audiences come and they don't really know what they're looking at," says Shannon, 34. "The reason they don't know is because I've invented this form and it's very particular to my disability.
"The fact I dance on crutches is because I don't have a choice."
Shannon is happy to discuss his disability only as a means for explaining his work; he refuses to become "a human interest story". "My work is about art, about connection with the history of movement. The fact I dance on crutches is because I don't have a choice. My disease becomes an issue beyond the aesthetics of the dancing only to understand the dancing."
Born in Pittsburgh, Shannon was diagnosed with Legg-Calve Perthes disease when he was five. It's a rare disorder that affects the head of the thigh bone where it meets the hip joint. From then on, Shannon had to use crutches. But by the time he was six he could run on them and by age seven, could execute tricks. When he was 11 the disease subsided, so Shannon learned how to walk again, discarding the crutches for his teenage years. He started skating when he was 13, and breakdancing at 14. But the disease re-emerged in his 20s, at which point he discovered that using crutches and a skateboard not only made getting around less painful, but afforded him greater mobility.
The rocker-bottom crutches allow Shannon a keen fluidity of movement. As the name suggests, they have arched bases rather than tips, allowing him to sweep and glide. First invented in 1917, Shannon modifies his rocker-bottoms to withstand his more extreme uses, employing car parts, aircraft-grade aluminium tubing and maplewood handles and saddles.
As with modifying his crutches, the search for solutions remains one of Shannon's driving forces. "In the end, the basis for all of my work is about finding answers," he says.
His website confirms this, revealing a man constantly exploring his relationship with the world and its people, its architecture, its intentions. How can he move around more easily? Why do some people try to help him? Why can some tell when "real" help is needed, while other "good Samaritans" cannot distinguish between help and hindrance?
There is a video on Shannon's website - http://whatiswhat.com - of a man, unaware he is being filmed, picking up Shannon's skateboard for him, thinking he cannot manage crutches, luggage and a skateboard on his own. The well-intentioned man, however, has in fact taken away Shannon's mobility aid. You see Shannon walking on crutches with luggage in both hands, one bag held in his mouth, walking - and falling further - behind the Samaritan.
Conversely, his website also features footage of him skateboarding down a New York street, grabbing a lift on the wheel rim of a taxi. What intrigues Shannon - and what inspires much of his material - are others' preconceptions of how a person on crutches should behave: mainly, that movements should be "safe".
"People have a framework for crutches," he says. "And the number one rule for people on crutches is never take risks in public."
Shannon feeds off people's views and responses to his work; he enjoys, as he calls it, "watching the watchers".
"I'm no longer the one out there being looked at; rather, I'm looking at the lookers, and investigating the assumptions and reactions," he says.
Since moving to New York 10 years ago, Shannon has performed and presented his video work all over the world. He also recently choreographed two pieces for Cirque du Soleil's new production, Varekai.
His Crutch Productions company, in which he works with a group called Step Fiends, is preparing a show to be premiered in Arizona * in November, 2004 *. He is also working on a video installation for the upcoming Liverpool Biennale.
Shannon no longer has Legg-Calve Perthes disease, just its legacy. He lives with pain much of the time, exacerbated when his legs bear his weight for too long, or by plane flights (of which there are many: he spends about half the year travelling).
Will the disease return? Shannon doesn't know. For now, on advice, he has ruled out surgery. "Hip replacements don't last for young people; you'd need another one in 10-15 years," he says. For now, he can accommodate his limitations, but at times is still frustrated by them.
"My fiancee wants to climb Kilamanjaro. I cannot do that. I can't even go. If I get a hip replacement, maybe I can climb it, slowly. But right now I'm not in any hurry for an operation."
This article was originally entitled "Rockin' all over the world" and was found at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/09/30/1096401705638.html
Search this site for more about Skateboard Vehicle, Enabler, Art Form *