Published: November 16, 2012
HOW’S this for a surprising success story? In 2007 Katie Smythe, a ballet teacher working out of her native Memphis, was driving her most remarkable student, Charles Riley, across the Mississippi to a lecture-demonstration in Arkansas. Mr. Riley, a young man specializing in the local form of virtuoso hip-hop footwork known as jookin, had started taking ballet lessons to gain strength and extend his range.
Ms. Smythe had already persuaded some jookin dancers to improvise to Haydn and Mozart. Now she asked Mr. Riley to perform to the cello “Swan” music from Saint-Saëns’s suite “The Carnival of the Animals.” Playing him the music in the car, she told him how Mikhail Fokine had choreographed this for the ballerina Anna Pavlova to dance on point.
In jookin, men wearing sneakers dance a version of pointwork too. They don’t wear tights, and in those shoes they can’t straighten their knees, but they go onto tiptoe and ripple their arms with the hip-hop currents and isolations that are a modern counterpart to a ballerina’s swan-arm undulations. When Ms. Smythe and Mr. Riley reached their destination, she introduced him to the audience and put on the music. Her school’s archivist filmed the performance and posted it on YouTube.
In 2010 this YouTube video (no longer online) was spotted by Heather Watts, a former principal of New York City Ballet who had danced for George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and many other choreographers. Mr. Riley, better known as Lil Buck, was not famous then, but he had moved to Southern California.
Watching this video of Lil Buck on YouTube, Ms. Watts was immediately electrified (“I freaked out, “ she said in a recent e-mail) as much by the beauty, musicality and spontaneity of the young man’s performance as by its stylistic novelty. She contacted Ms. Smythe via Facebook; when the two women subsequently met in person, they spoke for four hours. Meanwhile Ms. Watts showed the video to her husband, Damian Woetzel, who is not only a former City Ballet principal but serves on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, is artistic director of the Vail International Dance Festival and is director of the arts program for the Aspen Institute. Like her he was thunderstruck. Establishing contact with Lil Buck took persistence, but in December 2010 Mr. Woetzel saw Lil Buck dance live for the first time, and in April 2011 he set up a session in Los Angeles, in which Lil Buck danced the “Swan” again, this time to the live cello playing of Yo-Yo Ma, for an event promoting arts education. Unknown to them, this was filmed by the director Spike Jonze, using his iPhone. Mr. Jonze posted the clip online, creating a global sensation.
Today Lil Buck dances in Madonna’s concerts around the world and has been featured on point in Gap ads. He keeps in touch with his dance friends in Memphis, where he returned in December to dance the Rat King in Ms. Smythe’s “Nut ReMix,” a “ Nutcracker” that employs hip-hop music as well as Tchaikovsky, and multiple dance styles, including ballet.
While in Memphis in late October I spent time at the New Ballet Ensemble and School, which Ms. Smythe founded and runs. Over dinner she told me how as “a homesick 14-year-old ballet student in 1977” she spent two months in London, studying at what was then called the Royal Academy of Dancing. John Field, the ex-dancer, artistic director and teacher, took Ms. Smythe and her fellow students to see a Zulu version of “Macbeth.” The experience stuck with her.
“It was wild that he took our class,” she said, “and way beyond my understanding.” In a recent e-mail, she added: “That early exposure to appreciation for all dance as part of our intrinsic nature and humanity, communication and language was a great gift. In the middle of all of that ballet training in 1977 he threw us into a larger world and forced us to open our eyes one day. He saw the beauty in African dance. I wish I could replay that evening, see it again with these older eyes.”
Dancing and teaching took her to many parts of the United States; but it was when she returned to Memphis that she began to recruit students from many cultural and dance backgrounds. In 2002 a student introduced her to jookin. In 2003 she had some of her dancers perform it to classical music in public.
In 2006, when Mr. Riley arrived at her studio at 17, she soon recognized him as “the Baryshnikov of jookin.” In a recent e-mail, she recalled, “He took ballet barre like he was in church.”
Lil Buck and many of the students she met came from financially deprived families. Ms. Smythe was able to sponsor her students by help from Nike, Arts Memphis, education funds from Arts Outreach and other sources, and she paid Lil Buck $200 a week ($165 stipend, with additional performing and teaching fees, eventually reaching about $300 a week) to attend her school. Often she had taxis ferry him there because of the poor transportation service to and from Westwood, where he and his family were living. The same kind of money-and-taxi system applies to some of her current students.
And she has also passed on the jookin Swan to other students. During my visit a miraculous 13-year-old student, Tajari Benson, known as T J, did the Swan; a week before he had danced it with Mr. Ma at a Memphis Symphony Orchestra concert, a performance now also on YouTube.
Despite his youth and beanpole skinniness, Mr. Benson — wide-eyed but deadpan in manner — already has the height of a grown-up. That afternoon he danced with a master’s effortless command. While Lil Buck is technically more astounding, some of his Swan performances have let tricks get in the way of the music. The rhythmic subtlety, physical fluency and musical attentiveness of Mr. Benson were astounding. Certain of the cello phrases end on high notes; I hope I never forget how he highlighted this by extending his line to its highest. You felt, during a single note, the Swan’s grandeur in flight.
The most remarkable feature of this wunderkind’s dancing was the complete naturalness with which he expressed the swan’s vulnerability. He began the solo kneeling, and he ended it by returning to this kneeling position and then folding over in a resting swan position. No special ballerina fingers and no flutterings of grief or protest: just a boy swan on the floor, head down, arms over his extended leg, finding a final stillness.
Two weeks later I shared with Ms. Smythe the rapturous reactions that the clip of Mr. Benson’s Swan had prompted from friends of mine. She replied simply, “The responses mirror how I’ve felt about the movement since first sight.”
Walt Whitman wrote, “I hear America singing.” A century ago Isadora Duncan adapted this line, proclaiming that she saw America dancing. I’ve loved many kinds of American dance and found many of them strikingly American, but only with these jookers in their sneakers did her words pop into my head: “I have seen America dancing.”
I come from Britain. One reason I took this job in 2007 is that I wanted adventure — to find things that would take me out of my comfort zone and extend my notions of beauty, art, and society. There have been many such adventures since then. Few, though, have equaled those rehearsals I watched with the jookin dancers of Memphis.