Lil Buck Exports Jaw-Dropping Memphis Street Dance to China

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"Jookin', to me, deserves to be in the same category as ballet and jazz and modern," Lil Buck says. "I get motivation and inspiration from watching water, just looking at how fluid it is." Lil Buck, aka Charles Riley, popularized the Memphis street dance style, adding a hint of classical ballet, through a collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma in 2011. When Spike Jonze captured their performance on video, it promptly went viral on YouTube. Later that year, he traveled to Beijing to share a stage with Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma for the U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture. This documentary film by Ole Schell follows the dancer on this journey to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and beyond. The director describes the making of the film in an interview below and ChinaFile has a video interview with Schell that you can watch here

The Atlantic: How did you find this story and decide to tell it?

Ole Schell: I was in Central Park watching Yo-Yo Ma perform with a bunch of kids from Harlem for a summer concert series. At the end of the show, this young guy named Lil Buck came out and did a dance routine unlike anything I had ever seen as Yo-Yo played the cello. His movements were fluid like water one second and then rigid and fast the next. It was totally unique and served as quite a contrast to the classical cello behind him. I later learned Lil Buck is from Memphis and his style is called "Jookin'." Trying to describe Lil Buck's Jookin' is almost a disservice. His movements are one part wet noodle, one part laser-quick computer animation that seemingly defies the laws of physics. Lil Buck is what you might get if Mikhail Baryshnikov and Chris Brown's genes were combined in a blender.

My father runs the U.S.-China Relations Program at the Asia Society in New York and was organizing an event in Beijing bringing western filmmakers, artists, writers, journalists, actors, musicians and people in the organic food movement together for four days to interact with their Chinese counterparts. People like Joel Coen, Amy Tan, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and Meryl Streep had discussions and held events with the likes of Chinese actors Liu Ye, Ge You, and a host of others. It was called the U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture. There were screenings, panel discussions, a dinner at the embassy and then finally a concert put on at the National Performing Arts Centre which was to include Yo-Yo Ma and Meryl Streep.

I work as a filmmaker in New York and my dad asked me to come along to Beijing to help film some of the events. The Forum had so many distinguished guests but it seemed to me they didn't have anyone as young and cool as Lil Buck. I suggested that they include Lil Buck to add a little spice to the whole affair. From there I went to LA where Lil Buck was then living and decided to document his journey to China for this short doc.

What was the production process like?

Production was fun. I went to LA, met Lil Buck and we scouted a location on the LA River where he and his dance crew could perform for the camera and do the first interview. He brought along two guys who went by the name of Tip Toe and Prime Time. We set up in front of some massive old hydro-electric doors surrounded by concrete and each guy did a solo and then improvised together. They explained that Jookin' is a style that originated in Memphis in the late 1980's but never made it to the mainstream. Lil Buck said his mission was to make Jookin' as big as ballet. Buck's own style was inspired not only by hip-hop but in fact ballet which he studied for several years in Memphis.

From there we went to China. It was Buck's first trip to China and I believe he is the only person in his immediate family to have left the country. He said he never met anyone from Memphis who had ever been anywhere like the Great Wall. Beijing was hectic as there were so many events but we found the time to take Lil Buck to do impromptu performances for confused Chinese citizens in Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall and the offices of various dignitaries.

Did anything surprise you in the course of making the film?

The Forum culminated in a music and dance performance arranged by Yo-Yo Ma and Damien Woetzel, the former principle dancer from the New York City Ballet. The evening included many east-west fusion performances by bands like Brooklyn Rider, a dance performance by Damien, a performance of "The Swan" by Lil Buck and Yo-Yo. There was even a poetry reading by Meryl Streep with Yo-Yo playing the cello. It was a very special moment. I'm not sure it was a surprise but there was a moment towards the end of the concert when Lil Buck got up and did an improvised number that blew the roof off the place. The concert had consisted of all these internationally recognized musicians and dancers in a semi-formal setting and along came Lil Buck with his street swag and Air Jordan's and blew people's minds. The theater was filled with an array of Chinese officials (including a member of the Politburo), western sponsors of the forum, and classical music enthusiasts. I doubt many in the crowd had caught even the faintest sniff of hip-hop culture.

Lil Buck killed it and closed the show to a rousing standing ovation just as we had hoped.

What do you want viewers to take away from the film?

Lil Buck could be described as a physical genius. I am not sure what I want people to take away from the film other than seeing two very different worlds coming together through art. I could more or less understand who Lil Buck is having growing up in the U.S.A. but it was unclear how the Chinese would react to him. My hope was that adding a little flavor to the event would make something totally unique happen. The fact that Yo-Yo had taken to Lil Buck and collaborated with him might have made it easier for the Chinese to relate to him. I saw Lil Buck as a totally exceptional and talented person and wanted to see what would happen when we added him to this brew of Chinese cultural formality, western academia and strong Chinese press contingent who were in attendance. The worlds coming together couldn't have been more disparate.

In trying to bring the two worlds together we included a soundtrack from both sides of the world. The track in the beginning and end of the film is called "Blowing Up My Phone" by Young Jai, a Memphis rapper getting radio play in the south. (He is also Lil Buck's cousin.) We included the tracks "Aisha" and "Made in China" from Beijing rapper Young Kin in the Great Wall scene among others and then included the haunting music of famed Chinese musician Wu Tong, who performed on an ancient instrument made from a gourd called a "Sheng." Contrast that with several live performances by Yo-Yo Ma, and Brooklyn Rider, a N.Y.-based string quartet, and we hope the film has a well-rounded soundtrack.

What's Lil Buck up to now?

Lil Buck has since blown up. He is in a Gap ad and has been touring with Madonna as a dancer all around the world. I was driving on the freeway in California and just saw him on a huge billboard. Lil Buck is a super sweet, genuine guy who came from very humble beginnings. While working on the doc Lil Buck rented a Maserati and he and I drove down to Atlantic City for a day trip. It was great and in many ways he is living the American Dream.

What's next for you?

I am just completing a 3D film to be released by Sony Creative called "The Sunday Morning Drive." It features an Audi R8 supercar and an array of motorcycles filmed from a seaplane and helicopter as they rally up the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California. It will be ready for a spring release.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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