BRING OUT THE JAMS: The first time dance director and former N.Y.C. Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel noticed Charles “Lil Buck” Riley — the jookin’ prodigy who will perform A Jookin’ Jam Session at UCSB on Tuesday, October 25, and host a community class with Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles at Santa Barbara Dance Arts Studio on Sunday, October 23 — he discovered him like many of us first did: on a computer screen. Woetzel’s wife, Heather Watts, spotted the dancer on a Facebook video, a teenager performing in a classroom in West Memphis, Arkansas, to the sound of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le cygne, and Woetzel was struck by Lil Buck’s “unusual and beautiful” combination of classical music with the Southern street dance style. So moved was Woetzel that he hit up his pal Yo-Yo Ma, and a collaboration was born. “I had this feeling about his talent and extraordinarily collaborative ability, and got the sense that he was up for it all,” Woetzel said.
Lil Buck and Yo-Yo Ma collaborated in an unforgettable moment, captured by Spike Jonze and watched by millions. “Buck’s gift of communicating through the arts was clear from that minute, and that was the beginning,” recalled Woetzel, who himself will lead a community ballet class at Gustafson Dance on Sunday, October 23. Now, years later, Lil Buck stands as one of the most innovative and renowned dancers in America. Through his partnership with Woetzel, Lil Buck’s star rose brightly and rapidly, from taking on an artist-in-residence position at the 2011 Vail International Dance Festival to joining Madonna at the Super Bowl and on the road as a dancer to honoring the spirit of Michael Jackson in Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: One to launching a Versace sneaker line.
Lil Buck’s work is a mix of improvisation and measured technicality, with the balance between varying per piece, Woetzel said. Some pieces are choreographed, and others free-form; either way, Lil Buck brings his distinctive style. But beyond his uniquely fluid moves, Lil Buck has made a name for himself through community outreach performances, like his upcoming dance class at S.B. Dance Arts Studio this weekend. In 2014, for example, Lil Buck performed at the TEDxTeen conference in New York, and in Detroit, he, Yo-Yo Ma, and Woetzel visited Spain Elementary-Middle School with an interactive Arts Strike, where Lil Buck jooked to a musical geography totally apart from his own as he danced to bagpipe music of Silk Road Ensemble bagpiper Cristina Pato.
Outreach performances such as these reflect Lil Buck’s deep belief in the transformative power of arts, Woetzel said. “He really is a true citizen artist in the sense that he believes the arts are a solution, or a part of a solution, to everything,” Woetzel said. “When we look at problems facing society, or education issues, or health or inequality issues, people who don’t have the ability in society to be heard — we see the arts as a solution to be applied, and Buck believes that approaches everything he does with that spirit.”
After their S.B. performance, Buck, Woetzel, and company have lots on their plate, including shows at the City Center in New York, featuring “lots of musicians and lots of dancers, and Buck in the thick of it,” said Woetzel, plus an exciting Broadway project in development that will capitalize on Buck’s singular jookin’. Lil Buck, it’s clear, will keep on jookin’ on — see him at UCSB, and you, too, will be under his spell.
Lil Buck performs A Jookin’ Jam Session Tuesday, October 25, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.), and a Community Class at S.B. Dance Arts Studio (531 E. Cota St.) on Sunday, October 23. For more information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.