In classical dance, the art of imbalance–the pirouette, the jeté or the mere ethereal, alighted walk that alone makes audiences feel they are getting their money’s worth–is the purview of the able. In the breakbeat idiom of hip-hop–which enlists not only the legs and feet as supports but the hands and elbows, sometimes the head, as available extensions on which the body pivots, pinwheel-like, everything else poised in midair–imbalance is the centrifugal force that holds often lightning-fast movements together. As long as one or another body part functions and holds its due weight, the expansive, exuberant genre known as hip-hop is possible.
It took a dancer with a disability–a congenital weakness in the hip joints that requires the use of crutches for continuous movement–to draw this further line between two worlds of dance whose differences are by now copiously documented. That is–being able to walk perfectly is not a prerequisite for accomplished hip-hop.
Bill Shannon, who goes by the revelatory stage moniker “Crutchmaster,” is a 32-year-old, interdisciplinary performing artist who discovered dance as a boy after he was diagnosed with an esoteric condition that pretty much precluded it, called Legg-Calvé Perthes. Owing perhaps to that innocence that enables children to perceive even lousy circumstance as novelty before tragedy, Shannon turned his 7-year-old’s crutches to acrobatic advantage by doing flips, or strides the length of which the longest-legged person is incapable of in normal life. It is not every child who walks with his own personal jungle gym, and in his craving for motion Shannon instinctually developed a vocabulary of necessity. He calls it the “Shannon technique,” and it became the foundation for a choreography that both utilizes and eclipses its inspiration in limits, joint stiffness and the jagged-limb look that disability confers.
Along the way he incorporated into his scenography the skateboard, which to an able youth is a fun, often artfully daring means of locomotion, and which to Shannon was a further liberation from the inescapable fact of his physical constraints.
Meanwhile, the advent of hip-hop, which came of age at about the same time as Shannon, and in the same place–the fringe of cities such as his native Pittsburgh, or Chicago, where he attended the School of the Art Institute–brought legitimacy to the edgy, spontaneous but often remarkably disciplined dance form developed on the most public stage of all–the street. Shannon had been performing there since his early teens.
The trajectory of hip-hop from the proverbial street, the ghetto, the projects, at best some unaccoutered shelter such as a subway station, to the rarefied milieu of the theater, is relatively recent. And Shannon has been among its more eloquent agents: first with his 1999 ensemble work, The Art of Weightlessness, and now with its stepchild, AOW: Remix, which premiered last December in Chicago and concludes its New York run at Dance Theater Workshop in the context of its Carnival Series on February 9. (Shannon plans to return to New York in late March, with new work for various outdoor venues.)
Remix, a studio term for reworking existing music to altered effect, producing the kind of repetitive, tech-beat din amped at exponential decibels in clubs, refers to the genesis of the piece in an earlier work. It also refers to that demimonde of the club, somewhere between street and stage, where new dance styles are born into the anonymity of dim lights and detonating music, and where, as a frequent denizen, Shannon honed his art form.