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Arts, Sports & Culture

Documentary about renowned Pittsburgh-based artist makes on-air premiere

Sachi Cunningham’s first memory of Bill Shannon is from Fulton Elementary School, in Highland Park, back in the mid-1970s. She was in first grade, and he was in third.

Bill Shannon performs
Falco Ink
Shannon performs on the street

“During recess he would stand at the top of the stairs and all the kids would play at the bottom,” said Cunningham, also recalling the leg braces Shannon wore, and his crutches. “And I just always wondered what this guy’s story was.”

Shannon’s story, as it happens, ended up going pretty big: He’s an internationally known performer and artist with an iconic movement style. And now Cunningham, herself a filmmaker, has finally gotten to tell it: “Crutch,” her and Chandler Evans’ feature-length documentary about Shannon, airs on the Discovery+ channel starting Oct. 14.

Cunningham actually got to know Shannon better in the 1980s, when both were attending Peabody High School. Shannon had Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease, which causes deformation of the hip joint and makes movement painful. He taught himself to skateboard and dance with crutches and, in the ’90s, rose to fame with a unique movement style that gave the illusion of weightlessness.

Chandler Evans
Chandler Evans is co-producer, co-director, and writer of "Crutch."

After Shannon was hired by Cirque du Soleil to create a sequence for its show “Varekai,” the two former schoolmates got back in touch. Cunningham was in Hollywood, working in the film industry, and looking for documentary project.

“I was just like, ‘Can I follow you around with a camera?’” she said. It was 2001; her initial interview with Shannon is the first one audiences see in “Crutch,” which was completed two decades later.

Along the way, Cunningham was joined by Chandler Evans, a filmmaker (also known as “Vayabobo”) whom she had met years earlier, when both were students at Brown University. The two are credited as co-producers and co-directors of “Crutch,” with Evans as writer. The film was self-funded by the filmmakers.

Sachi Cunningham, filmmaker
Filmmaker Sachi Cunningham was a childhood friend of Shannon's.

“Crutch” sketches Shannon’s early life, during which he was a pint-sized daredevil but also singled out and misunderstood because of his leg braces and crutches. For a time, in his teen years, the pain of his condition receded, and Shannon was able to discard those aids; with friends including his younger brother, Ben (now a well-regarded Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter), he eagerly pursued activities including breakdancing and skateboarding. (“Crutch,” rich with home videos, documents Shannon’s adolescent activism against anti-skateboarding laws in Pittsburgh, including a 1988 arrest.)

Shannon got into performance art and was a force on Pittsburgh’s scene in the early ’90s before enrolling in the Art Institute of Chicago. By then he was using crutches again – rocker-bottomed models that better suited his movement style than the traditional, single-point style. After moving to New York City, he became part of the street-dance community there, and helped pioneer street dance on concert stages, a practice that ultimately took he and his collaborators to theaters around the world.

Since moving back to Pittsburgh with his family, in 2006, Shannon has continued to pursue an interdisciplinary art practice that increasingly incorporates technology, with shows like 2018’s “Touch Update,” the result of a residency at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

A good deal of “Crutch” is devoted to Shannon’s public performance art. During his time in Chicago, he became more conscious of how he was treated by people who perceived him as “disabled.” In one series performed on the street, for instance, he would intentionally fall and then use hidden cameras to record how passersby reacted. Often, in trying to “help” him, they would actually get in his way, and he’d have to help them help him. In one episode depicted in “Crutch,” two men interrupt a performance he’s giving for an audience seated inside a nearby bus to assist him in descending some stairs he’s clearly capable of navigating on his own.

“Crutch” explores the questions such works raise, both about the passersby’s motives and whether Shannon himself was exploiting “strangers’ Good Samaritan impulses,” as the film’s web site puts it.

Shannon himself asks people to “abandon assumptions” about what people with disabilities can and can’t do.

“I think that is also another takeaway that I hope people have, just to ask questions, to ask that person what they need,” said Cunningham. “And ask if they need the help. And not assume anything. It’s not to not give [help], it’s to ask, and have a dialogue, have a conversation. Go a little more deeply than just holding out a hand.”

Evans said that, at Shannon’s prompting, he and Cunningham expressly strove to avoid making a film about a person with a disability that was about “triumph over adversity.” Shannon’s work “really pushed the narrative, the disability narrative, forward, and instead of just entertaining, or inspiring the audience, it really turns the lens back on the audience, and sort of asks them to questions their own assumptions,” said Evans.

“I hope through this film we’re also trying to help others who don’t necessarily have the same physical disability, and maybe not even a disability, but who are misunderstood, that there are other people out there that understand them and that they aren’t alone,” said Cunningham.

In an interview about the documentary, Shannon said that on the whole, he likes the finished film. But he said he disagrees with some of Cunningham and Evans’ artistic choices, including the title. Shannon has long objected to descriptions of his work that center his disability.

Shannon added that the fact that the film was shot over 20 years gave it more impact than one made over a more typical interim. “It wouldn’t have had the same sort of documentation of that longer span of time, from being out on the club scene in New York to having kids and living in Pittsburgh, you know what I mean?’” he said. “It’s like two different worlds.”

“Crutch” screened at numerous festivals, starting with its world premiere nearly one year ago via the online DOC NYC. It also opened Pittsburgh’s ReelAbilities festival, in September, at the Carnegie Museum of Art. But the Discovery+ distribution will open it to whole new audiences.