Dance sensation Lil Buck, once a Third Street Promenade busker, melds classical cello and Memphis jookin

By Christina Campodonico

Lil Buck trained himself to dance en pointe in sneakers

Lil Buck trained himself to dance en pointe in sneakers

When Charles “Lil Buck” Riley started dancing he dreamed of spinning on his toes. But his ideal pair of dancing shoes wasn’t pointe shoes for ballet. It was a set of sneakers for jookin, a Memphis street dance style that combines, gliding, gangsta walking, liquid and breakdancing.

“I made myself walk around the house in really soft shoes on my own point,” recalls Lil Buck, who grew up in Memphis. “I dealt with bloody toes and bloody toe nails and toe nails coming off and all of that. … Because if I could stand on my toes in soft shoes like that then I could stand on my toes in sneakers that actually had enough toe support.”

The pain paid off.

Lil Buck shot to stardom when a Spike Jonze-shot iPhone video of him dancing to Yo-Yo Ma playing Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” went viral in 2011. To the amazement of onlookers and more than 3.2 million viewers to date, Lil Buck transformed into a veritable human swan — rippling his fingers like ruffling feathers, tucking his head under his leg like a bird hiding its face under a wing, gliding across the concrete like a duck skimming water and pirouetting on his toes just like he’d always dreamed. “Swan Lake” had met hip-hop, and it was totally awesome.

Others, before that video and after it, saw how cool jookin was, too, and so Lil Buck has worked with the likes of Madonna (performing in her 2012 Super Bowl Half Time Show), Janelle Monae (dancing in her music video “Tightrope”), New York City Ballet, Cirque du Soleil and L.A. Dance Project’s Benjamin Millepied. This weekend Lil Buck brings his toe-twirling virtuosity to The Broad Stage, where he’ll perform with classical cellist prodigy Mihai Marica.

The performance showcases Lil Buck’s special connection to the music of the cello, which not only launched his career, but continues to inspire him.

“You can hear a cello play a note and all of sudden, at a certain pace to it, it just makes you cry,” says Lil Buck. “All instruments dealing with strings kind of hit these vibrational notes that hit the heart and the emotions. I think the sound of the strings is as close as it gets to just giving off human emotion. It’s the closest it gets to human emotion as far as translating human emotion through sound. ”

It was Lil Buck’s ability to make movement appear musical that inspired Marica to work with the dance artist.

“I saw him dance at the Guggenheim museum and was amazed by the way he translated sound into movement,” wrote Marica in an email.

For Lil Buck, who used to busk on 3rd Street Promenade and around Venice when he was trying to make it in L.A., the jump from jookin to classical music isn’t as great a leap as it might seem.

“I think classical music is beautiful and I think that Memphis jookin is beautiful,” says Lil Buck. “These are two beautiful things that really don’t cross paths as much as they could. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m pretty much putting these two beautiful things together and creating something that’s amazing and inspiring for people. Classical music inspires when people listen to it, and jookin does the same.”

For their stage show, both Lil Buck and Marica describe a type of synergy happening between them and their art forms.

“We have a good chemistry together already and [Marica] just knows the notes that I’m looking for —how hard I want the notes to be, or how soft they should be for certain parts. … He knows how to watch me perform and really work the notes,” says Lil Buck.

“The fascinating part about our collaboration is the element of improvisation that is present even though you might not expect it,” writes Marica. “Lil Buck can really surprise you with how he interprets the music, and what I try to do is make our interaction be a complete circular system. In other words, I put the sound out there, creating the aural atmosphere, then he takes it and adds the visual atmosphere, which in turn I let influence the way I build my phrases. The beauty is that you will not see or hear the same performance twice.”

In other words, you may just have to see it in order to believe your eyes.

Lil Buck and Mihai Marica perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 13 and 14, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $55 to $85. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit the