Lil Buck talks transition to film

By Published: December 14, 2018 1:09 PM CT

While Charles “Lil Buck” Riley rehearsed for this year’s edition of "Nut ReMix" at New Ballet Ensemble & School on Monday afternoon, a crew of two filmed him for an upcoming television dance docuseries.

If Riley has his way, he will be in a lot more films.

“I’m 30 years old now," he said. "I do a lot of crazy dance moves and ankle breaks (a technique) and it’s only so long that I can do a lot of these things, and I really love film as much as I love dance, so I’m really excited about that.” 

Riley, the most famous alumnus of NBE, is known for his mastery of the Memphis street dance called jookin'. That mastery has taken him to performances with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma in Beijing and during Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl half-time show.

In recent years, he has also been seen in a Lexus Super Bowl ad, as well as an Apple AirPods ad.

This year his dance moves – namely jookin' – were used for the CGI Mouse King character in Disney’s “Nutcracker and the Four Realms.” The movie was released in November.

Ironically, Riley did not get the role because of his previous portrayals of the Mouse King in NBE’s "Nut ReMix."

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“It was actually from a video they’d seen of me,” he said. “I also do this residency in Vail, Colorado, with the International Dance Festival and they saw me perform with (ballerina) Tiler Peck and they were so moved by that performance that they wanted that mix of street dance and classical.

"They wanted to work with me on a film and it so happened to be the Mouse King role. And that was crazy because it’s like this full circle that happened. I feel like I’ve been attracting that moment throughout my whole time being here at NBE and being into film and wanting to make that dream happen. The law of attraction was working in my favor.”

Translating jookin’ from real life to animation involved Riley wearing a special suit while performing in London.

“That was an amazing experience being a part of the Nutcracker movie, first of all because it’s Disney,” Riley said. "And I always wanted to do a movie, let alone working with Disney.”

The movie’s Mouse King character is actually made up on average of 60,000 mice and is featured in two key scenes of the movie. Riley’s movements were blocked with basic animation before his performance, according to the film’s visual effects supervisor Max Wood.

According to the film’s press kit, development for the Mouse King took more than six months and involved a team of more than 30 artists.

Riley has the role of Meshach in the 2019 film “Emperor.” The film is based on the true story of Shields Green, who escaped slavery, met Frederick Douglass and participated in John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859.

He is also working with a film organization that he and fellow street dancer Jon Boogz created called Movement Art Is.

While Riley is known for jookin', Boogz, who is from Miami, is known for popping.

“We produce short films with powerful narratives that are told through dance and using dance as a tool to really push these narratives out, these important social issues that are happening in the world,” Riley said.

One of them, “Color of Reality,” addresses police brutality. “Am I a Man?” was created in collaboration with CNN’s Great Big Story platform. That short film addresses mass incarceration.

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In addition to addressing social issues, Riley and Boogz also want to show that street dance is fine art.

“A lot of people tend to put street dance in this box – I love ballet, I’m here, I learned it – but a lot of people seem to think ballet is fine art and contemporary is fine art but street dance is its own little thing,” Riley said. “But street dance has been a fine art and is just as much a fine art as ballet to me. And it has so many different technical ways of going about it. And we really want to show the world that.”

The two did the soft opening for a show called “Love Heals” a few days ago in Los Angeles, where Riley lives.

“Basically, all the films I’ve been telling you about we’ve choreographed for the stage,” Riley said. “We touch on climate change, we touch on breaking down different barriers we put up for ourselves, all these walls that are physical and mental that block us from creating a connection with each other and we touch on everything else from mass incarceration to police gun violence.”

Besides his film projects, Riley and his manager Jai Armmer also are working on a creating a Memphis dance academy.

"A lot of people tend to put street dance in this box – I love ballet, I’m here, I learned it – but a lot of people seem to think ballet is fine art and contemporary is fine art but street dance is its own little thing. But street dance has been a fine art and is just as much a fine art as ballet to me."
Charles "Lil Buck" Riley, dancer

“It’s a process that is not a quick one, but it’s a definite necessity for the city, we believe,” Riley said. “Basically, we’re working on a dance academy where I’m not only teaching dance but I’m teaching the business side of things. 

"A lot of dancers here don’t know where to go or how to start a career with their talent. (I am) just basically giving them all of the things I’ve learned through trial and error and moving to L.A. when I was 19 years old.”

Riley can be seen this weekend at New Ballet Ensemble's "Nut ReMix" at the Cannon Center. Tickets start at $25. 

"Color of Reality" can be viewed below: 


Lil Buck New Ballet Ensemble Jon Boogz Movement Art Is Jai Armmer
Elle Perry

Elle Perry

Elle Perry covers arts and culture and other news for the Daily Memphian. She is a native of Memphis and a two-time graduate of the University of Memphis. Elle previously worked for the Memphis Business Journal and has written for publications including The Memphis Flyer and High Ground News.

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