Charles “Lil Buck” Riley grew up dancing on the streets in his Memphis neighborhood. Now, he’s dancing above them in downtown Los Angeles. And this weekend, he'll bring his distinctive moves to a performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on an outdoor stage in Pasadena complete with live orchestra and opera singers.
Drive by the JW Marriott L.A. Live hotel on Olympic Boulevard near Staples Center this month and you’ll see art come to life on the building’s giant outdoor screen. Flashing above the bustle of traffic, Lil Buck and his close friend and collaborator Jon Boogz make a powerful political statement in Color of Reality, a piece they created with the help of painter Alexa Meade.
In Color of Reality, Lil Buck and Boogz bring an impressionistic painting to life. With their skin and clothes covered in vibrant brush strokes, the two dancers evoke a Van Gogh painting as they morph from still-life figures to living, breathing, 2-D dancers. In the video, which plays on the side of the building at the top of every hour during September, they also make a bold artistic statement about the grim reality of gun violence and the killings of young black men by police in America in 2016.
Lil Buck and Jon Boogz are like-minded artists. “We both believe dance is not just entertainment,” Boogz explains, speaking over the phone from the house they share as roommates in Las Vegas. “We believe dance is a tool to empower, to educate, to cleanse the soul, to break down social barriers and economic barriers and religious barriers. We both believe in a bigger mission for movement artistry. Buck and I connect on that level.”
Lil Buck has mastered “jookin,” a style of dance that originated in his hometown of Memphis. jookin is characterized by intricate, glide-influenced footwork, and evolved alongside the Southern gangster rap to which it was first performed in Memphis in the late 1980s.
“My sister came home from school one day and started showing me some moves she’d learned,” Buck recalls. He started collecting jookin DVDs he would buy in his neighborhood for $5 and imitating the techniques of the dance crews in the videos. “Then I went to this skating rink in Memphis where a lot of jookin went down — the Crystal Palace Skating Rink — and that’s where I fell in love with it.” Soon, he was making his own videos.
Jon Boogz describes jookin as “urban ballet,” especially as it is realized by his friend. “Buck combines the best of both worlds,” Boogz elaborates. “He combines … jookin with traditional techniques of classical ballet to create this beautiful marriage of urban street dance and classical dance.”
While the vocabulary is different, the concept of mixing a traditionally white, classical art form with art rooted in an African-American tradition is essentially what George Gershwin was doing in the 1930s when he wrote Porgy and Bess. It was the first opera to tell a purely African-American story and the first to feature an all-black, classically trained cast.
This Saturday night on the campus of Caltech, the innovative classical music group MUSE/IQUE presents a reimagined version of Porgy and Bess on the Beckman Mall Lawn. It’s the final show in the organization’s Summer of Sound series. As the violins swell and the voices soar with the sounds of “Summertime,” Lil Buck will enhance the story through his own unique movements.
“We based the choreography off of the intention in the music,” says Boogz, who is acting as Lil Buck’s creative director for this production. “Since it’s an opera, it has a story, so we based the movement off of that. Intention first, movement second.”
For his part, Lil Buck is just excited to dance to music he loves while it is being performed live. It’s something he’s done many times before, most notably on tour with Yo-Yo Ma. “You have that personal connection,” he says of performing with live musicians versus recordings. “You have that chemistry and energy. Because I’m such a passionate dancer and I have a lot of power behind my movements, this performance of Porgy and Bess is just everything I want. There’s a lot of power in this music. I’m looking forward to showing that off.”
Summer/Time: Porgy and Bess Bring Us Together, Beckman Mall Lawn at Caltech, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena; Sat., Sept. 10, 7:30 p.m. (gates open at 5:30); $40-$120. muse-ique.com.