Years ago, Charles Riley needed access to dance teachers, technique and facilities. Now international stars are clamoring for access to him.
Charles Riley and the New Ballet Ensemble will perform “Nut ReMix” this weekend.
(Photo Courtesy of New Ballet Ensemble)
The fast-rising star of “jookin’” found some time in between world tours with Yo-Yo Ma and Madonna to perform with Memphis’ New Ballet Ensemble (NBE), where his adventure first began.
Riley, 23, aka “Lil Buck,” will dance in NBE’s ninth annual production of “Nut ReMix” – an urban adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” – at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre Friday, Dec. 9, through Sunday, Dec. 11.
“I started teaching myself to jook at the age of 12,” said Riley, who was born in Chicago but moved to Memphis as a child, living in the Westwood neighborhood.
“Jookin’s a freestyle-based dance and it consists of a lot of footwork. It’s been around for about 30 years now. It looks like Michael Jackson times 10 – a lot of gliding and tiptoe work. It originated in Memphis and it comes from Memphis music from the ’80s, from artists like Three 6 Mafia – they had a specific sound to their music.”
Riley explains that jookin’ starts with a bounce in the shoulders and legs to match the rhythm of the music, then steps are added. It falls into the hip-hop genre along with choppin’ and buckin’, which is where the nickname “Lil Buck” came from.
Riley saw his sister jookin’ in their living room and started doing it himself. He found his way to the charter school Yo Academy, where he performed with a school dance troupe turned community ensemble called “Subculture Royalty.”
Riley’s dance teacher recognized his talents but knew he needed more practice. She connected him with Katie Smythe, CEO and artistic director of NBE, who enlisted Subculture Royalty in the hip-hop battle scene in “Nut ReMix.”
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, it looks just like ballet – if (Riley) just had some ballet,’” Smythe said.
“A lot of kids have to dance on their front porch because they don’t have the access. If you don’t offer kids with great talent, great tools, talent will flounder.”
NBE’s hallmark is providing students with ballet and world dance training regardless of their ability to pay. Some 140 dancers perform in “Nut ReMix.”
Smythe found scholarships for Riley and others from Yo Academy through Nike and jookin’ met ballet.
“I saw ballet on TV before I started taking classes,” Riley said. “I saw them on their toes and then I’d see jookers on their toes. I knew there was a comparison between them.”
And that was a perfect fit for “Nut Remix,” Smythe said. In “The Nutcracker,” classical ballet dominates the choreography, with snippets of world dances from China, the Middle East and Spain.
In “Nut ReMix,” classical ballet is just one of several dances fusing on the same stage.
This year, NBE added an extra performance after two near-sellouts last year.
Riley performed as the hero soldier who defeats the evil rat king, but his career took off after a video of an impromptu performance of his now-famous “Hip-Hop Dying Swan” at a West Memphis elementary school was posted on YouTube and went viral.
Riley conceived the performance on his way across the Hernando DeSoto Bridge to the school.
Damian Woetzel, the retiring principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, saw the video and contacted Smythe. Woetzel connected him with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, both of whom are on the President’s Committee for the Arts.
Ma attended one of Riley’s performances in Los Angeles, where Riley now lives, pulled out his cello and started playing. Riley jooked to his music and the deal was sealed. The two performed together in New York, Chicago and China.
“It’s going to be a busy next year,” Riley said. “I’m going to be on world tour with Madonna and performing in Vail, Colo., and the Super Bowl in February. The Yo-Yo Ma clip really pushed it over.”
But for now, he’s happy to be back where it all started, in Memphis and “Nut ReMix,” where Smythe offered him the role of his choice – the rat king.