In the spring of 2011, a cellphone video shot by Spike Jonze went viral. A 23-year-old dancer from Memphis named Charles “Lil Buck” Riley moved with a water-limbed responsiveness to cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s emotional rendition of Camille Saint-Saens’s “The Swan.”
Lil Buck had introduced the world to a freestyle-based dance called Memphis jookin and was instantly elevated into the spotlight. Since then, he has performed with Madonna and Mikhail Baryshnikov and appeared in commercials for the Gap and Rag & Bone. He even taught Stephen Colbert a few moves on “The Colbert Report.”
On Friday at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, Lil Buck, now 27, will team up for the first time with another cellist, Ashley Bathgate. (Ma served as a mutual connection for the pair.) The two come together for “What Moves You,” a premiere event at Spoleto Arts Festival USA.
“Ashley is one of the best and youngest contemporary music cellists today, so it was only right that we collaborated,” Lil Buck wrote in an email.
Both artists thrive on connecting and collaborating. Bathgate, for example, is constantly teaming up with composers to create new music and also incorporates new tools and technologies. “I have been working a lot with electronic components in my work,” she said. “I prerecord tracks and make it sound like a backing band.”
Lil Buck brings that same eye for innovation to the world of dance, according to Damian Woetzel, who orchestrated the Yo-Yo Ma and Lil Buck performance after seeing an early video of Lil Buck’s jookin.
“Buck is a born teacher and collaborator,” said Woetzel, a former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet and current director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program. “His qualities that make him such a phenomenal dancer lie in the fact that he has this spirit of adventure and a new level of risk. He is endlessly curious and very daring.”
This sense of adventure has led Lil Buck to performances across the globe, from Iceland to New York City to Los Angeles to Paris and then back to New York City, where he met up with Bathgate in mid-April to rehearse and get a feel for one another’s style.
“It was really about playing and improvising off of one another and taking and sharing information from that rehearsal,” Bathgate said.
They met again once more before the festival to rehearse and work out any other kinks, but Bathgate said the focus was on creating the kind of chemistry that could sustain their five performances.
“We will be performing a few nights in a row and it’s nice,” she said. “It’s a luxury to be able to repeat the performance and be in the same space for a while.”
In addition to “The Swan” and a few traditional Bach pieces, Bathgate will play a few originals from composers she has teamed up with in the past, including Jacob Cooper’s “Arches” and two Kate Moore pieces — “Stories from Ocean Shells” and “Broken Rosary” — which will appear on Bathgate’s upcoming album.
Even with a fixed set list, Lil Buck guarantees a fresh perspective for each performance.
“None of the shows will be exactly the same,” he said. “I really feed a lot off of the audience — they help me move. I will do a mixture of improv and what I’ve turned into choreography. After performing all over the world, some parts are locked in, but I just let the music move me.”
Dianna Bell is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.