2 Idealists, Tackling Social Ills With Street Moves

Posted April 10, 2018 10:31 p.m. EDT

Dancers Lil Buck and Jon Boogz — Buck and Boogz for short — share a mission: nothing less than to improve the world through dance. Both emerged from the street-dance scenes in their hometowns, Memphis, Tennessee (Buck) and Miami (Boogz). They met at an open jam session at the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio in Los Angeles almost 10 years ago. As they put it, they recognized each other’s skills but also connected on a higher plane, as two idealists who believe that dance can bring people closer and perhaps even change the way they think.

Buck does Memphis jookin’ and Boogz’s background is in popping. But despite their different styles, they started performing together along the tourist-filled 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. Their shows aimed to touch people rather than just entertain them. “People would cry watching our performances,” Buck said about those open-air events. “It was a whole different experience for them.”

They both have busy careers, but alongside touring with big-name rock stars like Madonna (Buck) and Gloria Estefan (Boogz), taking part in the Vail Dance Festival (Buck), and collaborating on a recent Rag & Bone fashion campaign that featured Mikhail Baryshnikov, the two started to plot ways to reach new audiences with dances that addressed larger societal issues like racism, police violence, immigration and the destruction of the environment.

Together, they founded MAI (Movement Art Is), a nonprofit that produces dance videos and, now, live performances, for which they share choreographic credit. Their film “Color of Reality,” made in conjunction with painter Alexa Meade, was inspired by their dismay at police shootings of black men and has been seen online more than 300,000 times. They are also featured in Terrence Malick’s short virtual reality film, “Together,” which will have its New York debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this month. (There will also be a 2-D version.)

This year, too, Buck and Boogz made their first evening-length show, “Love Heals All Wounds,” which has been touring the country since January and comes to the Skirball Center at New York University on Saturday. It is structured as a series of dance scenes punctuated by poetry, composed and performed by Robin Sanders. Each section deals with a contemporary social ill. “A lot of the things we’re talking about,” Boogz said, “from police brutality to mass incarceration to gender equality and racial equality, we grew up with that. There’s a certain struggle that is passed down.”

I caught up with Buck, 29, and Boogz, 30, on Skype after a recent performance of “Love Heals All Wounds” in West Palm Beach, Florida. What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: How are your dance styles different? Have you found a middle ground?

LIL BUCK: We train together a lot and we’ve adopted a lot of each other’s styles. Jookin’ comes from Memphis, but jookers are so competitive, we’ve added elements from other styles like popping and waving.

JON BOOGZ: Popping is more about illusion; you want to look unreal, like a cartoon or a stop-action figure. But I love the cadence of jookin’. That timing.

BUCK: Yeah, we like to beat jump; we jump from the beat of the bass to the snares to the high hats, and to the different cadences of the lyrics.

Q: How does the show differ from other theatrical evenings featuring hip-hop and street dance styles?

BOOGZ: A lot of times growing up we felt like oddballs because, in the street-dance culture, when you try to be too contemporary or too theatrical it wasn’t always praised. It was all about battling or competitiveness. But both Buck and I always had a love for taking our dance style to another place, artistically and cinematically. There are kids out there who think that way too but maybe their environment is telling them it’s not OK. We want the show to be a platform for them to say, hey, they look like me, they dance the way I do; they’re doing it, maybe I can too.

Q: A lot of the music in “Love Heals All Wounds” is sweeping and romantic, in a movie-soundtrack way. Why did you decide to go in that direction?

BUCK: We know music is a huge part of getting your point across in film, and we’re aspiring filmmakers. We worked with this violinist and composer Jason Yang and several other collaborators, to help create that atmosphere. [The show also includes music by Izzy Beats, Daniel Bernard Roumain, and others.]

Q: There are four other dancers in the show; where do they come from?

BUCK: We’ve known them all our lives. Ron Myles and Keviorr Taylor, I grew up with them. And Robin Sanders, the spoken word poet, used to choreograph for the New Ballet Ensemble in Memphis when I was taking ballet there. She’s a spoken word artist, but she’s also a choreographer and a dancer. It’s all family, so our chemistry is really strong.

Q: What did you learn from ballet?

BUCK: I took ballet for 3 1/2 years and I share that story with the world. Now little kids back in Memphis aren’t afraid anymore. Guys aren’t afraid to jump into ballet classes, to learn more control or balance. You can still be you and take ballet.

Q: How can dance educate?

BOOGZ: When “Color of Reality” boomed so crazy, I was getting emails from teachers saying that they used the film to help them teach the history of Jim Crow. For six minutes, the kids weren’t on their phones or whispering to each other. They were just paying attention. I want kids to think theater is cool, because theater is cool, it’s dope. They just haven’t seen too many representations of people like them onstage.

Q: What is the message of “Love Heals All Wounds”?

BUCK: We want to focus on “these things are out there” — but also on “what is the solution?” There is a solution and a way out of this: love.