Most people who move to New York City on a whim don't end up on the pages of the New York Times — and certainly not four times in as many years. Ashley Bathgate is not most people.
"Moving to New York was the moment everything changed. My world expanded," says the cellist. Bathgate earned her Master of Music at Yale, and, encouraged by her professor Martin Bresnick, moved to New York City for an interview with the contemporary classical music group, Bang on a Can All-Stars, almost six years ago. She's been there ever since.
As a member of Bang on a Can, as well as the two chamber groups she started, TwoSense and Bonjour, Bathgate manages to keep herself pretty busy. She expands on her classical cello training by exploring new cello techniques, most notably using a wine cork to manipulate chord sounds in composer Ted Hearne's piece, "Furtive Movements." She visits Spoleto for the first time this year for five shows with Charles 'Lil Buck' Riley, an internationally acclaimed jookin' dancer. Together, the two plan to present what Bathgate calls a "creative explosion."
Though they met just a few weeks ago, Bathgate and Buck immediately hit it off, introducing their divergent styles to one another. "It's been an organic process so far, and I think it will continue to be," says Bathgate.
Buck's manager Jai Armmer isn't too worried about pre-performance practices. "Buck can go out there to a track he's never heard and you swear he'd been practicing for six months," he says. Trained in both ballet and hip-hop, Lil Buck erupted on to the international dance scene with a 2011 video that showed him performing alongside cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Buck is an artist of the jookin' school — a street dance that started in 1980s Memphis as the "gangster walk." The "gangster walk" was initially just one step — a literal walk. "Everybody did the gangster walk in the club," says Armmer. "It was one, two, one, two, three, with some arm movement." Now, though, jookin' is something different entirely, a style all its own. Jai says that it's comparable to ballet because of the way the dancers stand on their tip-toes, but "nobody went to ballet school." Well, nobody but Buck.
"First off, you gotta say it right," laughs Armmer as he explains the dance that can now be found in cities around the world. Jookin' rhymes with cookin' and lookin', so get that "juke" sound out of here. Jookin' is all about rhythm and staying in tune with whatever music is playing — be it classical or rap. While a lot of jookin' dancers stick to rap music, Lil Buck is open to any and all genres.
Like Buck, Bathgate's musical tastes range from classical to what she calls "new music." After years of classical training, Bathgate began to experiment with variations on cello performance. "I want to know all of the possibilities, what it [the cello] can do with amplification, and with technology," she says. She says that she has always wanted to work with a dancer — she just assumed it would be someone in a classical or ballet setting. Bathgate says that when she played her music for Buck for the first time he started dancing and improvising on the spot. "You get a new perspective from a dancer," she says.
Armmer remembers the first time he saw Buck dancing on the street in Memphis. "I saw Buck dancing, and I was tryin' to do what he doing," he says. "Buck has always been a good dancer. He stuck out from everyone [in Memphis]."
The happy coincidence of his meeting Buck, around 2003-04, coincided with the emergence of YouTube and online videos, which were the perfect platform for spreading the word about jookin'. "We just wanted to get it out to the world," he says.
"I've watched the videos that he's done, and I can see that he's listening to the music," says Bathgate. The pair will meet again right before their Spoleto performances to hone their set. "It's like an exoskeleton," Bathgate says of her collaboration with Buck. "The meat on the bones is going to be ever-changing." Bathgate knows a thing or two about collaborating, since she is always playing music written for her by composers. "My calling is being an interpreter of other people's music," she says. She's open, though, to improvising, and maybe even writing her own music. "With the different computer programs now ... it's hard not to flirt with that world," she says.
There's no end to the impact technology has had on the art of both Buck and Bathgate. Armmer credits Facebook for bringing jookin' to dancers in other countries. "Six or seven years ago, guys in France would post these jookin' videos on Facebook, and they were just terrible," he says. Now, he says, they're much better. Like Memphis' gangster walk, jookin' has evolved and improved upon itself. "Online we get hits from Germany, Russia, Amsterdam, and China. Jookin' is everywhere."