For a long time, people trying to describe the dancer Storyboard P have achieved great comparisons and superlatives. He is the Basquiat of street dancing or a more virtuoso extension of Michael Jackson. He is the best street dancer in the world or just the best dancer. To back up these judgments, there is abundant evidence online: cameos in videos for Jay-Z and high-art films by Arthur Jafa and Kahlil Joseph, appearances in commercials, and plenty of home-made footage starring him, stunning and unique in his own right. kind.
Storyboard is exceptional, extraordinary. This is beyond doubt. The question that all the praise and video evidence raises, but can’t answer, is: where does it fit?
This was the question 10 years ago, when his fame started to spread from the Brooklyn dance battle scene to the mainstream media. Talent doesn’t guarantee success in any field, but with Storyboard, the gap between his category-defying artistry and his career prospects seemed to uncover a missing path in American culture. In a 2014 profile in The New Yorker, a magazine that doesn’t publish many profiles of street dancers, he questioned why he couldn’t get as much attention as rappers and talked about plans to become “a visual artist” signed to a music label. that would send him on tour.
Those plans did not go through. Storyboard is 31, and despite its burst of fame and millions of online views, his dance seems to live pretty much in the same place as before: the semi-anonymous cameos, the low-profile and homemade clips. On April 7-8, he will appear in the courtyard of Performance Space New York, a legendary East Village site of the avant-garde, for two nights of freestyle improv. But instead of answering the question where he fits, these appearances only throw him again.
“I’ve done a lot,” Storyboard said in a recent interview, countering the perception of unfulfilled promise. “It just depends on what you value.”
Part of the problem, as Jafa pointed out in an interview, is that Storyboard “isn’t a backing dancer.” Jafa said he could use Storyboard in “4:44,” the video he directed for Jay-Z in 2017, because Jay-Z didn’t want to be in it. He noted that the music videos in which Storyboard is most impressive, such as “Until the Quiet Comes,” which Joseph filmed for Flying Lotus, are videos in which the nominal star is barely present.
But in the music industry, dancers ultimately come from a background unless they’re also singers, which Storyboard isn’t. (He raps.) And neither the art world nor the non-commercial dance world is much more welcoming to an improvisational street dancer, at least not one with Storyboard’s extraordinary qualities. Jenny Schlenzka, Executive Artistic Director of Performance Space, said she had been trying to present Storyboard for years and that, for reasons both institutional and specific to him, arranging the upcoming shows had been an adventure more complicated than she could have imagined. .
Some of those complications are historic. In an attempt to explain the importance of Storyboard, Jafa referred to Joseph’s film ‘BLKNWS’, in which cell phone footage of the dancer is accompanied by the voice of Fred Moten, the philosopher-poet. Moten talks about how the existential problems black people have faced “are so deep that we are forced to dance” and how dance is “higher language”. Storyboard, Jafa said, “has taken black dance to unprecedented heights, but the mystery is how impossible it is to imagine an infrastructure around him that would allow him to sustain it.”
For the fans of Storyboard, his story is now known. How, as a shy child in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he first discovered dance as terrifyingly naked, then as empowering and addictive. How he received formal training at the Harlem School of the Arts, but learned much more from the dancers in his neighborhood, who transformed Jamaican dance style brukup into a local one, called flex. How he started winning dance fights, but remained an outlier—too weird, too effeminate at times, too willing to go what others feared. How his dancing became an outlet for fantasy, an escape from difficult circumstances, and how it turned him into a channeler of dreams and nightmares.
Born a Saalim Muslim, he took his nickname to show his admiration for stop-motion animation, the sequences of images he learned to mimic through meticulous control of his muscles. (The P is left over from an earlier character, Professoar.) From flex, he also developed the illusion of floating and sliding.
“It’s like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk,” Jafa said, “where you go one way but your body the other, but Story has figured out how to fragment it and play along multiple axes.” Jafa related this to African aesthetics, multiple (rather than singular) points of view, a dynamic relationship between subject and object.
Multiplicity is the thing about Storyboard. He can break his body in zigzags, lower and raise himself with the limbo hydraulics of a lowrider car, seem to dodge bullets and bend gravity with his propensity. But what makes his virtuosity truly mesmerizing is how the style he calls “mutant” seems to draw from all dance, collect everything it needs, and how Storyboard uses it as a hypersensitive tool, attuned to every aspect of music and everything. around him, even because it’s plugged into an imagination that seems exciting, frighteningly free. There’s no telling what he might do.
His fearlessness and virtuosity earned Storyboard stunned respect within his dance community, and when people outside of him discovered him, almost always online, some gave him the dubious compliment that he transcended dance – that he reminded them of performers in mediums with more prestige . (Jafa, more complicated, said Storyboard makes the distinction between folk dance and modernism.) Even Storyboard can sometimes talk this way. He told me that he is primarily a writer and a storyteller. “Dance is like a side job,” he said.
It might be more correct to say that dance is part of his way of dealing with the world. Before and after our conversation, he was absorbed in the music he was playing from his phone and felt surfaces – the walls, the floor, at one point my knee. As viewers of his videos can recognize, his meaningful idiosyncrasy extends to fashion. He wore a non-functioning watch that he said was a compass to gauge legends and a glittering plastic slate, which he later turned into a noose when he danced for a photographer. He also said that his medium was clairvoyance or “telepathy.”
Storyboard talks as he dances. I hoped to access “a deep thinker about practice and process,” as critic Greg Tate characterized him in a profile for The Wire. But talking to Storyboard often felt like a boxing match with a Zen master—not hostile, just dizzying. Standard questions were non-starters or material for puns and freestyle rap. (How does he prepare for his improvisations? “I’ll think about it as I go along.”) With a laugh, Storyboard replied in quite associative poetry, continuing the sounds of words, sometimes in rhyme.
Often his answers were so closely encoded that I couldn’t keep up, and as I later tried to decipher the recording, I found that he was messing with me, at least part of the time. He told me to watch his performance at the Grammys with Alicia Keys singing “Underdog,” but when I looked it up, instead of Storyboard, I found Lil Buck, a street dancer who has found more success in mainstream dance settings. And then I noticed that in Storyboard’s riff about being an underdog, he had said, “You can’t be after the big money, you have to be after the small money.”
Those who have worked with Storyboard call him eccentric, special, visionary, a genius. He told me, as he has done in several interviews, that he is bipolar and schizophrenic. He talked about stigma and stigmata, but also about ‘this ability’, not disability, and joked that ‘the C-word’ means coherent.
This is another way it doesn’t fit. “It’s hard to track him down,” Schlenzka said. “Sometimes he calls you back, sometimes he calls you in the middle of the night, sometimes he’s at the door. Who wants to put up with this in the arts sector?”
Schlenzka got to know Storyboard after he performed at a gala, and because she had nowhere to sleep, she stayed with her family for a few days, “dancing around the breakfast table.” Wanting to commission him, she decided out of self-interest to give him the same budget as other performers (those with sets and rehearsals). But because she felt he needed an unconventional approach, she partnered up with Arika, an arts organization in Scotland that connects aesthetics with social justice.
In an email, Arika’s Barry Esson described his organization’s role as building and translating trust between Storyboard’s way of working and mainstream performance contexts. (Arika was already in a relationship with the dancer, first through Jafa.) He suggested that one of the reasons Storyboard isn’t getting “the support its talent deserves” is “the skilled nature of the dance and visual arts world.”
“The story is a sweetheart, not a diva,” said Jafa. “It’s just hard to get your arms around what’s being put forward. He’s a sprinter in a pool.”
Could an artist like Storyboard be housed differently if he worked in a more money-making medium? Given the gap between Storyboard’s gift and his career, Jafa pointed out that dance hasn’t been marketed in the same way as music. Storyboard also seems to be thinking along these lines when he complains about “pop artists with a machine behind them” and how they “bite” his inventions, and how YouTube is removing his videos for using unlicensed music. Now he is mainly on Instagram.
Storyboard’s manager, Shawn Griffith — who calls Storyboard “Transac-shawn” — told me about some of the upcoming “big steps”: a TV show that hasn’t been announced yet, the creation of a “dance label” equivalent to Def Jam Recordings. Storyboard itself was more ambiguous: “If you don’t handle your own business, a project is just a projection,” he said. (Although he did say he was working on a book on “de-channeling and rechanneling poltergeists,” which is “what dancers always do.”)
After the interview, I watched Storyboard dance for the photographer. There was a brick wall behind him, the wall of Performance Space New York, and for a moment I thought he was trying to climb it. Then he made it look like he was going to go through it. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to get in or out.