Like a skateboarder dodging potholes while bombing downhill, Bill Shannon has spent most of his professional career dancing around the labels and designations flung his way. Yet the thought of a feature-length documentary examining his life and artistic output doesn’t intimidate him.

“I’ve always been down to do docs,” says Shannon, sipping a coffee one bright Polish Hill morning, not far from where he lives with his wife, Leah, a NEXTpittsburgh editor, and three children. “There’s been short docs made about me before, but the thing that was different about Sachi, and about Chandler, is that they really wanted more of the story than anybody else wanted.”

Sachi Cunningham and Chandler Evans are the co-producers of Crutch, a documentary film 14 years in the making about the life of Bill Shannon: artist, break dancer and provocateur sui generis.

“People want the ‘Bill Shannon has a disability’ story,” he laughs, imagining what less capable filmmakers might portray: “Bill Shannon dances on crutches. Isn’t it cool? Isn’t humanity amazing? Aren’t we all able to just dance on our crutches?”

Raised in Pittsburgh, Shannon has achieved international acclaim for his art in all different mediums. Earlier in June he appeared at CREate Festival wearing a cubist video mask of his own creation. He has performed at the Sydney Opera House, Kennedy Center and at dozens of top-flight international arts festivals. He starred in a widely popular music video for turntablist RJD2 well before “going viral” was considered a good thing, and he has been hired to choreograph dances for Cirque du Soleil.

“I had been working as an assistant in Hollywood for a long time and assisted people in realizing their stories,” explains Cunningham, a Peabody High School grad. “I wanted to take a crack at doing my own.

“Bill just happened to call me right during that time [2002], and I told him I was looking for a project, and he said he just started choreographing for Cirque du Soleil. So that’s when I did my first interview. I actually borrowed his camera for the interview; I knew very little about documentary films at that point. And that led to 15 years of following him around!”

Even after all these years the film is not complete. It is at a rough cut stage, and the producers placed the project on Kickstarter June 17 in hopes of securing the funding needed to edit the film into its final form. The film raised over a quarter of its $100,000 fundraising goal within the Kickstarter’s first 24 hours online, but the film still needs to raise over $50,000 (as of June 23) to receive the funding.

“The rough cut stage is in a place where we know we have a story,” Cunningham says, “which is very important, but I think the really hard work – and the really fun work – is when he have the money to pay an editor to spend the time and make sure we’re thinking through all the story points and making sure that every image and every sound is moving the story forward and furthering the message of the film.”

Cunningham says that she feels a “personal obligation” to get the story right; she has been a friend of Shannon and Shannon’s family since elementary school. She sees no conflict of interest as long as she is transparent with the audience about her relationship with Bill. She also cites her co-producer, Chandler Evans, as an objective counterbalance.

“He’s a very skilled storyteller himself, and he sees things through a different lens than I do, and I think that was really important for me to partner up with someone who could give me some perspective.”

A young Bill Shannon in the Pittsburgh Press.

In addition to footage from his career as an established performer, the documentary delves into Shannon’s formative years in Pittsburgh. The breaking and skating scene of the mid-80s was  instrumental to his blossoming creative and artistic aesthetic, and there’s footage of a teenaged Shannon being held by a police officer at a protest rally against a proposed citywide ban on skateboards in Pittsburgh.

What makes Shannon’s performance art all the more distinctive is his rocker-bottom crutches, the visible legacy of a degenerative condition caused by Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a childhood affliction of the hips.

“I’m on a skateboard, jamming out to music, rocking out on these modified rocker-bottom crutches. I got my hat to the side, and I’m right on beat, and I’m fresh to death. Untouchable. Stylistic. Master. So people are like, how can you call that disabled?”

“People just want to know,” he says, “before they know anything else, does he really need the crutches? Because they can see I can use my legs. So it’s got this weird ambiguity to it. So they need to put their ambiguity to rest. So if I don’t actually give medical validation, there’s that little voice in the back of their head, going, does he really need those? So they’re always trying to figure this first question out before they can listen to anything else that I have to say.

“Ambiguity is very disruptive,” he continues. “People know that things are either ‘this’ or it’s ‘that.’ If people have this ambiguous notion, they’re constantly trying to answer it and they can’t hear anything else.”

This concept of “medical validation” is just one of several phenomenologies that underlie Shannon’s performance art as well as his day-to-day interactions with the outside world.

“I think that it’s planting this seed of doubt is what’s the most provocative thing [about my performances]. The most provocative act is to force people to doubt their assumptions. It’s like, if that’s not really what’s happening, then what is happening? And I think that that’s what’s at the heart of what I do.”

Bill Shannon with his son Rex. Photo by Brian Cohen.

“Bill is not just going to stand back and let people pity him,” says Cunningham. “His work is about getting people to question, ‘Why are you pitying me?’ ‘Why do you think I need help?’ ‘Why don’t you ask me something other than why do I need crutches?’ This is what I think makes Bill stand out and that’s what is so attractive about his art.”

Shannon secures much of his funding from grants and from performance and speakers fees. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and more recently, a $10,000 Investing in Professional Artists award from The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation, which will go toward an upcoming video installation on disabled dance.

“I literally am always hustling to get that next gig, to get that next check,” says Shannon. “I’ve been very successful in not having a day job, but it’s not the most secure way to go about, like, ensuring your children’s future by spending your money on art projects.”

After 14 years, Cunningham can only hope that the public finds Shannon’s art as deserving of a wider audience as she does.

“The real value of Kickstarter, whether you get the money or not, is that you build a community around the story. I think that’s happening.”

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.