In the New Doc ‘Crutch,’ Dancer Bill Shannon Doesn’t Need a Hand

‘Crutch,’ a documentary about dancer and performance artist Bill Shannon, premieres next week at the Doc NYC festival.  (Courtesy of the artists)

Watching Bill Shannon dance can be enthralling, disturbing and voyeuristically captivating. But what makes him such a singular artist is that he’s likely to be carefully observing you, too.

A virtuoso on crutches who came of age in the 1990s as a b-boy and skateboarder, Shannon is a performance artist and provocateur who has earned international fame while refusing to slip compliantly into preconceived narratives set aside for disabled dancers.

A new documentary about his life and work, Crutch, premieres as part of the Doc NYC film festival, screening virtually Nov. 11–19. Co-directed by San Francisco cinematographer and filmmaker Sachi Cunningham and Los Angeles’ Vayabobo (a.k.a. Chandler Evans), the film is an intimate, multilayered sojourn into the psyche of a restlessly creative artist.

In many ways, the curse afflicting so many documentaries turned out to be a blessing for Cunningham and Vayabobo. The challenges of fundraising for an independent feature meant they spent two decades working intermittently on Crutch. The extended production allowed them to capture the evolution of a protean artist from his early days as a street performer who secretly filmed interactions with unwitting good Samaritans seeking to help someone capable of literally dancing circles around them.

“He was in this dark period when we started following him,” says Vayabobo on a recent Zoom call. “He was heavily in the hip-hop scene and we created our own archives of his performances. In those early days he’d already developed the language that he uses. Sachi and I would joke that we had to learn crutch-ese, because he used this terminology for his moves. We’d nod, but I didn’t understand what he said. It wasn’t until watching the tapes years later that I could really put his terminology together with his moves.”

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Throughout the course of the film, Shannon keeps finding new ways to challenge the seemingly indelible set of associations attached to crutches. He brings his able-bodied b-boy crew the Step Fenz into theaters, choreographs for Cirque du Soleil and designs a series of increasingly intricate street performances involving video surveillance of bystanders who react to him slaloming down New York City streets, powering his skateboard via his specially designed crutches. (A paying audience follows Shannon, observing the entire scene from a chartered bus.)

If Cities Could Dance

After an early four-minute promo Cunningham and Vayabobo cut in 2006 went viral on YouTube, they knew that they had the raw ingredients for a powerful film. “And then there was a problem with the story,” says Cunningham, who is also a professor of multimedia journalism at San Francisco State University.

“Bill was very clear that he didn’t want to do anything that smacked of triumph over adversity, what he calls ‘inspiration porn,’” she says. “He had started doing these street performances, trying to figure out the phenomenology of interactions with people and the secret world of assumptions. To find that story, we had to keep following him.”

While Cunningham never puts herself in the action, the Pennsylvania native has a personal connection to the story. She attended the same Pittsburgh elementary school as Shannon. Two grades behind him, she vividly recalls seeing him on campus in the bulky braces he wore to mitigate the damage and alleviate the pain from a little-understood, hip-debilitating bone disease known as Legg-Calvé-Perthes syndrome.

Vayabobo, Sachi Cunningham and Bill Shannon.

Their paths crossed again as young adults, and she felt that his attempts to define himself as an artist, using perceptions of his disability as creative fuel, would make a fascinating film. While she worked in Hollywood as an assistant to director/producer Barry Levinson and actress Demi Moore, Cunningham ended up applying to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in order to acquire the storytelling skills to craft a documentary about Shannon.

Teaming up with Vayabobo, whom she met when they were undergrads at Brown University, allowed tag-team coverage of Shannon during crucial early years as he refined and expanded his hip-hop-steeped vocabulary as a dancer. When Cunningham was on the road reporting and shooting stories for PBS’ Frontline/World, Vayabobo captured key scenes, like a confrontation at a San Francisco freestyle dance competition run by dancer Justin Alladin (aka TeN) in the summer of 2003.

At the time, Shannon and his crew the Step Fenz were known for their hybrid moves combining house dancing and b-boying, which were still separate styles at the time. At one point, thinking that Shannon was able-bodied, the dancer Prolific confronted him, demanding he “get rid of those crutches, bitch.” When Shannon explained that he needs the crutches, Prolific apologized and they hugged it out, but the interaction captured a dynamic that plays out again and again on screen.

“As a filmmaker, the whole episode was very revealing,” Vayabobo says. “I had seen people treat Bill as a cripple and I had clearly witnessed people assume Bill was a faker. The assumptions and misunderstandings were laid bare. I definitely had no idea at the time that we would be on this journey with Bill for another 17 years.”

Crutch streams online as part of Doc NYC on Nov. 11–19. Details here