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.
Throughout the seventy-minute Remix, the presence of DJ Excess working the turntables in a corner of the stage re-creates that unspoken but critical rapport unique to clubs, between dancers and the seamless sound on which they depend. For decor, VJ Vello Virkhaus’s background of projected video designs imparts narrative themes of, say, danger or harmony, between cryptic motifs that mimic the true club dancer’s eventual oblivion, by the end of the night, to the objects of external senses. David Szlasa’s alternately stark, dark or colored lighting reiterates the prescribed mood.
In this spare but wholly adequate context, Remix‘s episodic dance play, infused with the coded gestural of contemporary street culture, relates aspects of human relationship: camaraderie, love, conflict, estrangement, outrage, indifference and, especially poignant in Shannon’s solos, one’s own hapless relation to oneself.
Functioning like a chorus in a traditional oeuvre, the five spectacularly agile members of the New York ensemble crew, the Step Fenz (Oronde Crowe, David Fogler, Bonnie Rodriguez, Erika Sato, Emmanuel Vega) initiate the action, variously incarnating stereotypic characters via dance styles. A death figure treads stealthily. A pregnant woman ambles. Two men spar in an escalating argument, their taut bodies cartoon poses of defiance.
Shannon soon appears, “incognito” in a dark hooded jacket all but shrouding his face. His crutches are of course a giveaway, though as custom-made, round-soled silver bars that he glides effortlessly alongside himself, they betray most conventional association with prosthetics. But it is when he begins to move, and at some point shed his outerwear to reveal the standard baggy-pants-and-T-shirt uniform of urban youth–that he brings a note of grace unequaled by colleagues in full possession of their limbs.
In the glorious gait of the gallop, a horse’s four legs become intermittently suspended, in a trompe l’oeil that took both art and science a while to fathom. With each step, Shannon employs his crutches as auxiliary appendages with which to achieve a similarly uncommon state of balance. They are vertical while he swings horizontal; splayed while he emerges upright. Compliant props in a partnered dance, à la Fred Astaire with a coat rack, they take on a magic life of their own. Meanwhile Shannon’s expression, less smug than Chaplinesque, conveys with mimelike wonder the miracle by which he can move at all.
For both artist and audience, the ultimate moment comes when one forgets they are crutches, or that they are necessary, and it happens often.
In an almost burlesque sequence clearly informed by Shannon’s experience of the medical profession–he has so far opted against surgery–dancers in doctors’ garb come after him in mock military march, wielding an IV and operating table. Though he escapes, they manage to force him to don a neck brace, and an ensuing duo in which Shannon struggles to perform a simple physical task, while green-gowned dancers cavort blithely beside him, would be too cruel a tableau of the shackle of permanent handicap if it were not also deftly comic.
In a finale suggestive of some playground idyll, where boys and girls take turns showing off and the public is treated to a panoply of improvised dance modes–house, funk, freestyle or a yet unpatented hybrid of the pop-and-lock signature of hip-hop–Shannon is both assimilated into and apart from the approbating crowd. That no one can do what he does, or at least with his degree of virtuosity, becomes cause for admiration rather than pity, and strikes no small triumph for a community (for whose rights Shannon lobbies in civilian life) blanketly regarded as unfortunate or second rate.
Remix is said to explore the street artists’ relationship to the stage, but for a more authentic perspective, spectators may look forward to Shannon’s “Creative Time” project come late March, when he will perform in yet undisclosed locations around his current home base of New York, and record observers’ impressions on a specially conceived website (www.creativetime.org). The endeavor is intended to provide a glimpse into “the conceptual framework behind the artist’s practice,” and chiefly comes as a response to questions regularly hurled at Shannon as he travels at some velocity down city streets. That so far inconclusive interaction will be transposed along with live footage to the web, where everyone will have their say.
The virtual exercise will complement Shannon’s pursuit of an already stellar performance career, which has taken him across the United States, as far afield as Jordan, and to far-flung sites in Western Europe, from Helsinki to Leeds to the gritty Paris suburb of Créteil, which improbably sponsors a major avant-garde arts center, and whose grim, blue-collar neighborhoods Shannon says remind him of his upbringing.
In each of these places, regardless of their contribution to the perennial novelties of street dance, AOW: Remix may have meaning. For it effectively showcases the creativity that can erupt around the corner, in pockets of the city far in every way from the stage, as dancers from all walks, as represented by the multi-ethnic Step Fenz, communicate via a language both individual and universal, to deliberately peaceful end.