This April 2, 2013 photo released by New York City Center shows Lil Buck, center, performing with Yo-Yo Ma, background at center left, at Poisson Rouge nightclub in New York. (AP Photo/New York City Center, Erin Baiano)
NEW YORK (AP) — If Lil Buck, the sensational star of the Memphis street dancing style called “jookin,'” has any bones in his feet — or legs, or arms — there is little evidence of that.
Instead, it seems like this compelling dancer is made of a durable and graceful rubber, so easily does he bend and twist his body into impossible poses. That natural gift, plus an ebullient spirit and a ready smile, was on full display in “Lil Buck at the Poisson Rouge,” a set of two shows Tuesday night that celebrated his singular talent.
The dancer, still in his early 20s, has been on quite a journey in the last two years, ever since he caught the eye of Damian Woetzel, the former New York City Ballet principal who is fast becoming a dance impresario (and who produced and directed the shows at the Poisson Rouge club.)
A video of him dancing to “The Swan” — with none other than cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing the slow and somber Camille Saint-Saens music — went viral. He performed at festivals in Vail and at New York’s City Center. He went to China to display his “jookin'” (pronounced like “book-in”) along with Ma and Meryl Streep. He danced with Madonna at her concerts. He even performed on “The Colbert Report.”
At the first of Tuesday’s packed, sold-out shows, with Vogue editor Anna Wintour sitting in the front row, Lil Buck (aka Charles Riley) was accompanied by an eclectic group of musicians, including Ma, the trumpet player Marcus Printup, the folk string quartet Brooklyn Rider, drummer John Hadfield, and the energetic Galician bagpipe player Cristina Pato. He was also joined by his cousin, the terrific jooker Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles, for some sizzling duet work.
The music was a vibrant mix of classical, modern (there was a premiere by composer Philip Glass), folk and traditional. There was even some ballet: Woetzel asked Lil Buck, who has trained with a ballet teacher, to perform a version of the George Balanchine piece “Agon,” to Stravinsky.
Cellist Ma, interviewed briefly onstage by Woetzel, was full of praise for the dancer: “He has such a natural reaction to his environment. I just love working with him.”
As part of the evening’s musical journey, Lil Buck displayed the origins of “jookin,'” which was created some 20 to 30 years ago on the streets of Memphis, beginning with a simple but confident “gangsta walk.”
As the evening progressed, he twirled and spun and glided on his toes, his ankles, his heels and pretty much every part of his foot — not to mention his knees. He sent pulses of energy radiating through his long arms. At times, as at the end of “The Swan,” he curled up like an expert contortionist.
Clearly Woetzel means to broaden the scope and range of his young protege as he becomes more visible, and this was a fun and exhilarating start. Here’s hoping New York sees a lot more of Lil Buck and his friends.