Bill Shannon is a remarkable dancer, his expressive, inventive movement facilitated by balance, control, and strength.
Then there’s the matter of the crutches he uses due to Legg-Calvé-Perthes, a rare disease of the hip bones. A pioneering multidisciplinary performance artist embracing not just movement but sculpture and video, Shannon has carved out an impressive career with work that challenges the assumptions society makes about the disabled.
The new documentary “Crutch,” filmed and directed by Sachi Cunningham and Chandler Evans, traces Shannon’s life from childhood to the present day. Featured this week as part of Emerson College’s Bright Lights Film Series, the documentary provides a sprawling yet intimate portrait of an artist’s coming of age — personally, physically, and artistically.
The filmmakers documented the development of Shannon’s artistic voice over two decades, incorporating fascinating clips from Shannon’s own archives. “I fed them a lot of my own footage and became integral to the artistic process of the film,” Shannon said via Zoom from his home in Pittsburgh.
“Crutch” highlights early forays into the underground hip-hop scene (where he was known as Crutch and Crutchmaster, joining New York’s renowned Step Fenz Crew), edgy street performances interacting with passersby, theatrical shows around the world — all using performance art as “a tool for personal transformation, political activism, and public engagement.”
Along the way, Shannon earned a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship, choreographed for Cirque du Soleil, got married, and became a father to three kids.
Grainy footage shows the artist as a youngster in Pittsburgh, often wearing a stiff brace following his diagnosis at age 5. He describes his activist parents — a nurse and a steelworker — as “culturally wide open and intellectually aggressive.” Their all-night dance parties in the family living room instilled in him a love of music and dancing.
By the time Shannon turned 12, his bones hardened enough to go without the support of crutches for a period of time, and he discovered break dancing. “I went straight from learning how to walk to learning how to moonwalk — the movement was magical,” he says in the film. And on his 13th birthday, his grandmother bought him and his younger brother Ben skateboards, which brought an exhilarating freedom of movement and ultimately became both “mobility aid and creative necessity” when his disease ramped back up in his 20s.
In hip-hop and skateboarding, Shannon found a “freestyle mind-set” of creating movement in the moment, a strategy he’d been doing naturally since childhood to try to keep up with peers. “I developed a hybrid style of movement very unique to me,” he said. “Even off crutches, I had limitations. But jumping on a skateboard, I could be respected for trick maneuvers and create my own path. Same with dancing.”
Shannon began to engage with his disability as part of his artistic process, becoming fascinated by how it affected patterns of human interaction. He experimented with encounters on city streets in which he (to some controversy) played off the actions and reactions of good Samaritans. A brilliant animated sequence midway through the film, using Shannon’s own art, outlines the cumulative effects of public reactions to his disability — curiosity, empathy, indifference, and the well-intended support he calls “impromptu sage advice” as people project narratives onto his disability.
“I have a complex relationship with help,” he said drily, adding, “I’m not concerned about being entertaining, but about confronting and working out conceptual questions about the psychology of interactions in a public space. … It’s about asking myself different questions, challenging myself.”
And he challenges others in the process.
“Bill’s classic line that personifies the film is ‘abandon assumptions,’” said Cunningham, who has known Shannon since childhood. “We wanted to show this hidden world of discrimination that people with disabilities inhabit. … His work changed my attitudes deeply. I’m much more self-aware because of his journey.”
But Shannon was adamant that the film center on him as an artist, never devolving into the narrative trope he calls “inspiration porn.” Evans said, “We could have created a narrative of ‘boy has disease, wants to continue dancing, overcomes incredible odds…’ But there was this huge, much deeper well of what he’s doing with the psychological aspects of his work.”
At 50, Shannon is performing less these days, “drawing down the pressure,” he said, to concentrate on fatherhood and other aspects of his artistic growth. But still he dances. “Dancing is pure joy. When I’m not in pain, usually after smoking a lot of weed, I dance and am able to let go of all those worldly concerns and just be human in the moment. And that is still a beautiful place for me.”
Part of Emerson College’s Bright Lights Film Series. 8 p.m., March 24 and 25. www.artsemerson.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.