Kathy Hornig’s inbox overflows with links to YouTube videos. As the director of festivals for Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, she’s become skeptical of the latest so-called viral sensations. Then one morning last April, a link came through that stopped her entire staff from getting anything accomplished.
All across the office, computer speakers were pumping out “The Swan,” a movement from composer Camille Saint-Saens’ suite “Carnival of the Animals.” On screens were famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and a hip-hop dancer who could gracefully torque his joints in time with the bow strokes.
“I said, ‘We have got to get this guy. He would be perfect for Artscape,’” Hornig recalls.
Hornig did get him. Charles Riley, the dancer known as Lil Buck, will make his area debut with four performances at Baltimore’s Lyric opera house. He’ll be the headline dance act of Artscape, Baltimore’s annual free three-day arts festival beginning Friday. The dance lineup is typically anchored by a major company, such as Ron K. Brown’s Evidence or Philandanco. Not this year. It’s just Lil Buck, performing alongside violinist Jason Yang. But Hornig is confident the duo will fill the Lyric’s stage.
“Seeing him in person is going to blow everyone’s mind,” Hornig said.
Buck, for his part, says his mind is already a little blown about the prospects of dancing on such an expanse. “That’s going to be great, to have a full stage,” he said, speaking by phone from Las Vegas earlier this month. “I’ll be like a horse who has been led out into the open. I’ll have so much room to just do whatever I want with my body and be free, you know?”
Equine metaphors aside, Buck calls what he does with his body “jookin” (pronounced like “BOOK-in,” but with a J). It’s a hip-hop style native to Memphis, with an emphasis on smooth footwork — a bit like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, but with more animation and arm movement. Currently, he’s performing in “ONE,” the Cirque du Soleil tribute to MJ, but his career trajectory is a classic intersection of high art, pop culture and social media.
As a high school student, Buck was in a hip-hop crew that rehearsed at a Memphis dance studio. One day the ballet teacher, Katie Smythe, wandered in. “She thought jookin’ was like ballet to the max. She saw me on pointe in sneakers,” Buck said. “Jookers do some of the same moves, but call them different names.” Smythe offered him a ballet scholarship, which Buck accepted on one condition: “They told me I wouldn’t have to wear tights.”
He credits his two years of ballet with strengthening his core and increasing his already preternatural flexibility. On a tour to Arkansas with Smythe’s New Ballet Ensemble, he performed to “The Swan” for the first time. Someone taped that show and posted it online, where it was eventually seen by Damian Woetzel, a former New York City Ballet dancer who serves on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanites. Woetzel arranged for Ma and Buck to meet at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
“(Woetzel) just thought it was a great idea for us to collab,” Buck said. “I didn’t know who Yo-Yo Ma was at the time, and then I looked him up on the Internet and I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Ma took Buck with him on a 2011 tour to China, and they’ve performed together several times since, including an April gig at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge club, which spawned yet another much-viewed YouTube video.
“Our chemistry is amazing together,” Buck said. “An African American kid from Tennessee and a world-renowned cellist. Our two worlds come together and we make something beautiful and inspiring.”
It’s electric violinist Yang, not Ma, who will perform with Buck at Artscape. But that beautiful mashup factor should still be intact. The festival takes place on 15 city blocks and includes everything from R&B concerts to Baltimore Symphony performances to sculptures made out of junked cars. There’s beer, funnel cake and $1,000 folk art for sale. And there is dance. For free.
“Dance has really become a destination for a lot of our festivalgoers,” Hornig said. “About 20 minutes before each performance, you can see people streaming towards the Lyric.”
In addition to Buck, the dance schedule includes Ballet Theatre of Maryland and six world dance ensembles. Two of those troupes — Furia Flamenca and Tehreema Mitha — are based in the Washington area. Hornig said she and her staff made a deliberate attempt to recruit dance companies from the District this year to diversify Artscape’s offerings.
“We try to book a dance program that would be phenomenal even if it were ticketed,” Hornig said. “With Lil Buck, we got lucky. It’s a mashup of hip-hop and classical, and I just couldn’t resist.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
Dance performances at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore. Lil Buck, Saturday July 20 at 4 and 7 p.m.; July 21 at 1 and 4 p.m. Tehreema Mitha Dance Company, Saturday July 20 at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.; July 21 at 1 and 4 p.m. Furia Flamenca, Saturday July 20 at 5:30 p.m. For complete festival listings, go to www.artscape.org