In November, 2011, a group of American creative giants—Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, and others—traveled to Beijing for a high-culture take on ping-pong diplomacy. TheU.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culturewas the work of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, headed by Orville Schell, and it produced a four-day mash-up intended to give each side more exposure to the other, beyond the contentious debates over economic and politics. The filmmakers Joel Coen and Lu Chuan talked movies; the chef Alice Waters and the author Michael Pollan discussed organic cuisine with Chinese food activists. It culminated in a performance of music, poetry, and dance at “The Egg,” China’s national opera house, arranged by Yo-Yo Ma and Damien Woetzel, the former principle dancer from the New York City Ballet.
Among the visitors, only one was making his first trip outside the United States—or, for that matter, was the first member of his family to do so. Charles (Lil Buck) Riley is “the Baryshnikov of jookin,” as he was once described in theTimes. He is the most famous practitioner of the Memphis style of hip-hop footwork. When Lil Buck’s earlier collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma was posted to YouTube, it drew more than two million views.
His four days of dancing across Beijing—and on the Great Wall of China—have been distilled into a short film by Ole Schell (son of Orville), who discovered that traveling around Beijing in Lil Buck’s orbit was like “experiencing the culture again for the first time.” Older Chinese viewers were baffled, but “you go into any Beijing or Shanghai club and they will be blasting the latest from rap songs from the United States”—without ever having seen it up-close.
The film, here, will remind you of the thrill of seeing China for the first time. I posed some questions to Lil Buck, at the link below.