A Morris Quartet; Lil Buck’s Jookin’

Dance doesn't demand a big venue to make a memorable impression, as two small-scale events this month have shown.

At the Mark Morris Dance Center's 150-seat studio theater, the Mark Morris Dance Group and Mikhail Baryshnikov are mixing it up with a fine quadruple bill of Mr. Morris's dances. Two world-premiere works are joined with one first shown last October and another, from 1994, not seen since 2000.

The presence of Mr. Baryshnikov—a ballet superstar in the 1970s and early '80s who first performed Mr. Morris's modern-dance-steeped works in 1987—brought extra attention to 2012's "A Wooden Tree." Set to recordings of 14 short, singsong creations by Ivor Cutler (1923-2006), a darkly witty Scottish poet and singer-songwriter with a sly, dry and reedy voice, the dance is full of colorful, mimetic touches that draw the viewer into its lyrics as well as its dancers' personalities. Words, music and movement combine to bring this selection of discrete, choreographed numbers to compelling and sometimes haunting life.

In "A Wooden Tree"—which plays out as a crazy quilt of 13 songs plus an unexpected epilogue—Mr. Baryshnikov is the eldest and likely wisest character among the four men and four women dressed in Elizabeth Kurtzman's rustic, casual clothing. His expression glints with a flickering smile that illuminates the little boy in Cutler's lyrics for "Rubber Toy" and keeps Mr. Morris's eventful choreography full of character and incident.

All the other works have stirring, live accompaniment from the MMDG Music Ensemble. "Jenn and Spencer" (to Henry Cowell's Suite for Violin and Piano) is an energetic new duet that features Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez, impressive as a barefoot couple in semiformal dress engaged in a relationship of shadowy and sometimes antagonistic tension. "Crosswalk," a new 11-dancer showcase, is accompanied by Carl Maria von Weber's "Grand Duo Concertant"; it enlivens its intimate space with patterned activity as energized as a street filled with artful commuters.

"The Office," the oldest of the works here, is the most willfully ambiguous. Set to Antonín Dvořák's "Bagatelles for two violins, cello and harmonium," Mr. Morris's five-part suite suggests remembered folk dancing interrupted by ominous leave-taking.


The night before Mr. Morris's season opened in Brooklyn, Manhattan's (Le) Poisson Rouge, a basement club, was filled to its roughly 350-person capacity for "A Jookin' Jam Session," a one-night-only run of shows headlined by the dancer Lil Buck, whose real name is Charles Riley. (On April 18, he is scheduled to appear in the "Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow" gala at the David H. Koch Theater.) The music-and-dance program lasted about an hour and also included fellow dancer Ron "Prime Tyme" Myles; musicians Yo-Yo Ma, Marcus Printup, Cristina Pato and John Hadfield; and Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet.

The 11-part program was introduced by its director and producer, Damian Woetzel, who described Lil Buck as a "prophet of jookin'," indicating that the now 23-year-old man was committed to taking his dance skills around the country and the world. Native to Memphis, Tenn., where Lil Buck was reared, jookin' is a dance form with roots in hip-hop and other street and club dancing. The show started with a demonstration of a "seed" moment for jookin', the "gangsta walk," a stride full of accentuation and attitude, somewhere between a fashion-runway walk and a stare-down.

Lil Buck is known for a widely viewed YouTube video of him jookin' to Mr. Ma's playing of "The Swan," from Camille Saint-Saëns's "The Carnival of the Animals," a piece of music familiar to ballet-goers as a showcase for the legendary Anna Pavlova and later ballerinas.

At (Le) Poisson Rouge, Lil Buck and Mr. Ma re-created their YouTube collaboration. But here, as with a segment called "Riffs on Agon" (which took inspirations of movement and music from Igor Stravinsky's "Agon," a 1957 ballet by George Balanchine) and with the world premiere of "Orbit" (a composition for solo cello by Philip Glass), Lil Buck looked somewhat constrained—held back by efforts based more on set choreography than improvisation. The works were enriched by the rubber-limbed and fluid-jointed feats of articulation that distinguish jookin', but each had moments of feeling forced. Though Lil Buck has ballet schooling in his background, the ballet postures for his "Agon" riffs looked more approximate than authoritative.

In his other segments, however, Lil Buck freely established an electric rapport with the musicians, with Mr. Myles and, above all, with the club's patrons, proving himself to be an artist of charisma, charm and unbridled confidence.

Mr. Greskovic writes about dance for the Journal.