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Carolina Performing Arts, led by the effervescent and imaginative Emil Kang, puts on a lot of cool shows, but the one currently playing jetted to the top of the list from its first moments. "Lil Buck @ Chapel Hill, a Jookin' Jam Session," which repeats on the 16th in Memorial Hall, featured the flabbergasting dancing of two Memphis Jookers and the stellar musicianship of four members of the Silk Road Ensemble, plus a cellist with UNC roots. The show was directed by Damian Woetzel, the protean dancer, choreographer and now dance impresario, who came on stage on the 15th to introduce the artists and to expound on the importance of creativity, collaboration and solidarity to counter the meaner human impulses exemplified by HB 2.
Jookin' is a fabulous style of street dance developed in Memphis that has flowed onto stages internationally. Far more liquid than most hip-hop, it appears to have been influenced by the great river that gives Memphis so much of its character. Lil Buck (aka Charles Riley), and the additional dancer on the program, Ron "Primetyme" Myles, moved as if the air were a buoyant medium, and at times, as if their very bones were fluid. Myles is very good, but Lil Buck has that extra something that makes him a great dancer. He's got it all – lift, line, timing, the ability to shape himself to sound, and joy, radiant joy.
Dressed in white T-shirts, closefitting black jeans and white and black sneakers, the dancers appeared from nowhere to twist and twirl below the stage before curtain-up. It was like the genie had gotten out of the lamp – in duplicate. Bounding onto the stage, the two came under the spell of Christina Pato's gaita – Galician bagpipes – writhing and twining and shimmering to its sinuous sounds. The image was amazing. She was sleek in black leggings and high heeled black patent leather pumps, with the bag of the pipes plump over her torso as she blew her tune like a snake charmer and the dancers rose up on their tippy toes in response. Soon she was dancing, too – the music spoke through all three bodies.
The program continued in much the same manner as a Silk Road performance, in which each player gets a turn, and various combinations play together. The hot-fiddling violinist Johnny Gandelsman (Silk Road, Brooklyn Rider, The Knights) took his first turn with (and this had to be pure luck) the same piece of Bach (from Partita No. 3 in E) that soloist Leonidas Kavakos had played for an encore two nights previously on his Stradivarius. The sound was different, of course, but what an opportunity to compare approach to the music. Kavakos' pure perfection was for listening, but Gandelsman's sound was muscular, highly textured, provocative of movement. As the music flowed through Lil Buck, his body responded with rich detailed flourishes as he followed the winding gavotte through its rhythmic circling, rising again and again onto his toes. The grace of his turns and the elegance of his arms and hands would be the envy of many a ballet dancer, and the world would like to know how he apparently turns his feet around backward, usually while cantilevering the rest of his body in the most improbable ways.
And so it continued, with Lil Buck and Myles dancing alternately, and then together, reminding one, in their black and white clothes, their zest, and their intricate footwork, of the virtuosic tap dancers, the Nicholas Brothers. Sometimes there was no dancing, just (just!) incredible musical solos.
The extraordinary Sandeep Das was on fire with his tabla, and Wu Tong played not only his sheng, but his beautifully-toned flute – and he sang! The rest of the world evaporated. After her great gaita piece, Pato stuck to the piano (there is something untamed, jazzy, in her touch that calls out the same wildness expressed by the pipes), and later in the program, Caroline Iantosca added her rich cello to the mix, playing Saint-Saën's "The Swan" from The Carnival of the Animals (Lil Buck's performance of the piece first brought him to the attention of Woetzel. The YouTube video of the performance with Ma can be seen here.) The ensemble was breathtaking as Iantosca's exquisite playing and Lil Buck's sensitive interpretation culminated in a terrible beauty.
The greatest glory of the evening came, naturally enough, when everybody played and danced in the culminating piece, with its final coup de theatre of Lil Buck running forward to launch into a back flip and sticking a clean landing. It looked impossible: it was enough to make a person believe in world peace. My only criticism of the show is that it is too short by half. At least.
The program repeats tonight; seats are still available. See our sidebar for details. The musicians will also play on Sunday afternoon with banjoist Abigail Washburn.