AFP: “I’m just getting started,” says dancer Lil’ Buck, whose hybrid style mixing street with classical has already earned him a devoted following.
And with a documentary on him due out in autumn, he looks set to leap higher into the public eye.
He and French director Louis Wallecan were in Paris this week for a special preview of the film, “Lil’ Buck: Real Swan”, at the Champs Elysees film festival. He took time out to talk to AFP about his career.
Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley was born in Chicago but grew up in Memphis.
He learned his first dance steps when he was 12 from his big sister – a local style known as jookin – and was quickly hooked on dance.
But he lived surrounded by poverty.
“I wasn’t happy with a lot of how I was raised and grew up, and things I have to be around, my environment. I kept myself happy with my family, my sisters and with dance.”
And dance was his way out.
“I had no plan B, no anything but what I wanted to do, my dream, my focus, my goal was to dance. So I focused 100% on it.”
His mother, seeing his growing obsession, took him out of public school at the age of 15 and into a private school dedicated to the arts.
“It was a turning point,” he says. “It changed my life because it was the first time I met people who think like me.”
In his old school, he was used to being laughed at. But in art school, “there is another energy, more creativity.
“Everybody has good energy, and it makes you want to come back to school. You want to learn.”
‘Dying Swan’ goes viral
A year later, at 16, he had joined the New Ballet Ensemble (NBE) in Memphis. “I learned hip-hop, ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary,” he recalls. “This is when I moved from street dance to dance in general.”
At 19, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his career.
Then in 2011, he performed “The Dying Swan”, a dance he had developed while still at NBE in Memphis, at a private event.
Thanks to a mutual contact he was accompanied by virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
US director Spike Jonze captured it on his phone, posted it to YouTube and his extraordinary performance went viral – to date, it has more than 3.4 million hits there.
He got increasing exposure, appearing on talks shows and music videos – and working with the likes of French choreographer Benjamin Millepied and the Cirque du Soleil.
He was even part of half-time interval show at the 2012 Super Bowl, performing with Madonna.
But as well as developing an extraordinarily diverse career, he still gives dance lessons to the young people in Memphis whenever he gets home.
“I tell them to keep yourself open to learn more about whatever is your passion,” he says.”
At 31, he is already concerned about the dangers that social media poses for younger talents trying to break through.
“With social media, it’s all different,” he says. “There are 14-year-old superstars.
“You want to be ready for the world, you want to able to be smart and wise enough to create your own path, to negotiate, to learn business, to promote yourself.
In the meantime, he has plans of his own. “I haven’t accomplished everything I want.”
He wants to be an ambassador for jookin, the Memphis style that first drew him into dance – and which he feels needs to be better known. And the city itself deserves better, he says.
“Memphis should have more opportunities. There are kids so talented but they don’t know where to go.”
Louis Wallecan’s documentary “Lil’ Buck: Real Swan” is due out on general release in the autumn.