Dancing on Air

Bill Shannon usually dances a few inches off the ground. "It's a weightless lifestyle and, through that, a weightless artistic expression," says 30-year-old Shannon (a.k.a. "Crutchmaster"), who has a rare form of arthritis that prevents him from putting all his weight on his legs for more than a minute at a time. The dance technique that has resulted from having been on crutches since age five is a unique quadrupedal approach that riffs on hip-hop, break, and club styles. "It's a conscious patterning of different types of weight distribution, a shared process between all four limbs," Shannon explains on the phone from his apartment in New York, a few weeks before his appearance as the opening act in the Walker Art Center's annual "Out There" series. "So while my right forearm is taking the pressure off of my left leg, my other arm can spin down to the ground and take the weight." The elaborate mechanics of Shannon's methods produces a hybrid style that allows him enormous range, both technically and expressively.

Using his crutches alternately as wings, levers, or additional limbs, Shannon can skim and glide, punch and explode. Just as widely varied as this arsenal of movement is the multifaceted nature of Shannon's productions. He often incorporates his own writing, sculpture, drawings, and video installations into compositions to illustrate the broader, more philosophical concepts behind his dancing. For instance, Shannon has included videotapes of impromptu street theater where he stages pratfalls, then films unwary spectators reacting to his disability. Although these scenes draw attention to the impulses of Samaritanism and the role of the handicapped artist, Shannon also experiments with the broader nature of performance--especially the shifting relationship between artist and spectator.

It's an appreciation of this dynamic that explains Shannon's preference for performing informally on the streets and in clubs. "When I'm in alignment with the streets, the rhythm and energy comes from the people and the intersection of unpredictable events," Shannon says. He describes such a performance in Mexico City. At one point, a man with no idea what was going on handed him a flyer, which Shannon then ripped up and scattered on the ground. A subway hurtling beneath a nearby street vent caused a sudden updraft, sending the confetti sky-high and the audience into fits of spontaneous laughter. "That's what it's all about," says Shannon, "Surfing out these moments, waiting for the wave, riding it all the way."

Shannon also brings this freestyle atmosphere to his theatrical performances, working off a series of references rather than a progression of steps. "I work with the music, some images, some signature maneuvers," Shannon explains. "So one day the dance may be all circular open flow, the next jagged and sharp." Shannon's in-the-moment approach to dancing means that the work he is presenting at the Southern Theater this week, Old Rain, will integrate responses to that theater's cavernous ambiance of exposed brick and peeling paint. Old Rain features six New York-based collaborators, including a violinist, vocalists, a DJ, and two dancers who work in freestyle house and b-boy styles--a "pure footwork" approach that is generally crisp and nonacrobatic. "Don't come expecting eye candy and a break-dance show," warns Shannon. "Do expect some hard-core dancing, but placed in a larger context."

Shannon's context f or Old Rain is both as sweeping as all outdoors (cyclical forces in nature and community, spiritual survival) and as intimate as an impromptu jam. Then there's the rain. "It falls on your head, becomes part of the river, the ocean, the sky, then falls on your head again," says Shannon of the show's guiding metaphor. "What are the chances of that being the same old rain? Maybe one in a million."