Storyboard P: Where does a street dance genius belong?
For a long time, people trying to describe the Storyboard P dancer have searched for great comparisons and superlatives. It’s the Basquiat of street dancing or a more virtuosic extension of Michael Jackson. He is the best street dancer in the world or simply the best dancer. To support these judgements, there is lots of evidence online: cameos in videos for Jay-Z and high-quality films by Arthur Jafa and Kahlil Joseph, appearances in advertising and heaps of home sequences in which he is the star, stunning and one of a kind.
The storyboard is exceptional, extraordinary. there is no doubt. The question that all the praise and video evidence raises but cannot answer is, where does it fit?
That was already the question 10 years ago, when her fame began 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 options seemed to reveal a missing pathway in American culture. In a 2014 profile in The New Yorker, a magazine that doesn’t publish many profiles of street dancers, he wondered why he couldn’t get as much attention as rappers and talked about his plans to become “a visual recording artist”, signed to a music label that would send him on tour.
These plans did not materialize. Storyboard is 31 years old, and despite the explosion in notoriety and millions of views online, its dance seems to live in much the same place as before: semi-anonymous cameos, low-key, self-produced music videos. On April 7 and 8, he appeared in the courtyard of New York performance space, a historic center of the avant-garde in the East Village, for two nights of freestyle improvisation. But rather than answering the question of its place, these appearances only raise it again.
“I’ve done a lot,” Storyboard said in a recent interview, countering perceptions of broken promises. “It just depends on what you enjoy.”
Part of the problem, as Jafa pointed out in an interview, is that Storyboard “isn’t a bottom dancer.” Jafa said he can use Storyboard in “4:44,” the video he made for Jay-Z in 2017, because Jay-Z didn’t want to be in it. He noted that the music videos in which Storyboard has the most impact – like “Until the Calm Comes” which Joseph filmed for Flying Lotus – are those in which the nominal star is barely present.
But in the music industry, ultimately, dancers are 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 hospitable to an improvisational street dancer, at least not one with Storyboard’s out-of-this-world qualities. Jenny Schlenzka, executive artistic director of Performance Space, said that she had been trying for years to present Storyboard and that, for both institutional and personal reasons, organizing the upcoming shows had been a more complicated adventure than she could not have imagined it.
Some of these complications are historic. Trying to explain the importance of Storyboard, Jafa referred to Joseph’s film “BLKNWS”, in which cellphone footage of the dancer is accompanied by the voice of Fred Moten, the philosopher-poet. Moten explains how the existential issues that black people have faced “run so deep that we are compelled to dance” and how dance is “a higher language”. Storyboard, Jafa said, “has taken black dance to unprecedented heights, but the enigma is how impossible it is to imagine an infrastructure around it that would allow it to sustain it.”
For Storyboard fans, his story is now familiar. How, as a shy kid in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he discovered dance first as a frightening exposition, then as empowering and addictive. How he received formal training at the Harlem School of the Arts, but learned much more from dancers in his neighborhood, who transformed the Jamaican dance style brukup into a local style called flex. How he started winning dance battles, but remained an outlier – too weird, sometimes too effeminate, too willing to go where 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 Saalim Muslim, he adopted his nickname to signal his admiration for stop-motion animation, the sequences of images he learned to imitate through careful control of his muscles. (The P is a holdover 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 move one way but your body goes another, but Story figured out how to fragment it and play it on multiple axes.” Jafa connected this to African aesthetics, multiple (rather than single) points of view, a dynamic relationship between subject and object.
Multiplicity is Storyboard’s thing. It can fracture its body in zigzags, lower and rise with the limbo hydraulics of a lowrider car, appear to dodge bullets, and bend gravity with its lean. But what makes his virtuosity truly bewitching is how much the style he calls “mutant” seems to tap into all the dances, bringing together what it needs, and how Storyboard uses it as a hypersensitive instrument, to listening to all aspects of music and all that surrounds it, even as it is connected to an imagination that seems exciting, terrifyingly free. We don’t know what he could do.
The fearlessness and virtuosity earned Storyboard a baffled respect within its dance community, and when outsiders discovered it, almost always online, some gave it the dubious compliment that it transcended the dance – that he reminded them of artists in more prestigious mediums. . (Jafa, more complexly, said that Storyboard evens out the distinction between vernacular dance and modernism.) Even Storyboard can sometimes speak that way. He told me he was primarily a writer and storyteller. “Dancing is like a side job,” he said.
It might be more accurate to say that dancing is part of her way of interacting with the world. Before and after our conversation, he was engrossed in the music he was playing from his phone and felt the surfaces – the walls, the floor, at one point my knee. As viewers of his videos may recognize, his significant idiosyncrasy extends to fashion. He wore a non-functional watch which he claimed was a compass to gauge legends and a glittery plastic lei, which later, when he was dancing for a photographer, he turned into a noose. He also said his medium was clairvoyance, or “telepathy”.
Storyboard talks like he dances. I hoped to tap into “a deep thinker of practice and process,” as critic Greg Tate characterized him in a profile for The Wire. But talking with Storyboard often felt like a boxing match with a Zen master — not hostile, just giddy. Standard questions were non-runners or material for puns and freestyle rapping. (How does he prepare ahead of his improvisations? “I think about it as I go along.”) Laughing a lot, Storyboard responded in free-associative poetry, riffing on the sounds of words, sometimes in rhyme.
Often his responses were so coded that I couldn’t follow, and when trying to decipher the recording later I discovered that he was laughing at me, at least some of the time. He told me to go see his Grammys performance with Alicia Keys singing “Underdog”, but when i looked at it, instead of Storyboard, I found Lil Buck, a street dancer who found more success in mainstream dance institutions. And then I noticed that in Storyboard’s riff about being an underdog, he said, “You can’t be after the big bucks, you have to be after the little bucks.”
Those who have worked with Storyboard call him quirky, special, visionary, a genius. For me, he said, as he did in several interviews, that he is bipolar and schizophrenic. He talked about stigma and stigma, but also “that ability,” not disability, and joked that “the C word” stands for consistent.
That’s another way it doesn’t fit. “It’s hard to find him,” Schlenzka said. “Sometimes he calls you back, sometimes he calls you in the middle of the night, sometimes he shows up at your door. In the arts sector, who is ready to put up with this?
Schlenzka became acquainted with Storyboard after performing at a gala, and having nowhere to sleep, stayed with her family for a few days, “dancing around the breakfast table”. Wanting to place an order with him, she decides out of fairness to grant him the same budget as the other artists (those with sets and rehearsals). But sensing he needed an unconventional approach, she teamed up with Arikaan arts organization in Scotland that links aesthetics to social justice.
In an email, Arika’s Barry Esson described his organization’s role as building trust and translating between the Storyboard way of working and traditional performance contexts. (Arika already had a relationship with the dancer, first through Jafa.) He suggested that one of the reasons Storyboard doesn’t get “the support his talent deserves” is “the ableist nature worlds of dance and the visual arts”.
“History is a darling, not a diva,” Jafa said. “It’s just that it’s hard to understand what’s on offer. He’s a sprinter in a swimming pool.
Could an artist like Storyboard be received differently if they worked in a medium that brought in more money? Considering the gap between Storyboard’s gift and his career, Jafa pointed to the fact that dance hasn’t been commodified in the same way music has. Storyboard also seems to think along these lines, when it complains about “pop artists with a machine behind them” and how they “bite” his inventions, and how YouTube removes his videos for using unlicensed music. Now it’s mostly about instagram.
Storyboard’s manager, Shawn Griffith — whom Storyboard calls “Transac-shawn” — told me about some “big projects” coming up: a TV show that can’t be announced yet, the creation of a dance” equivalent to Def Jam Recordings. Storyboard itself was more equivocal: “If you’re not running your own business, a project is just a projection,” he said. (Although he said he was working on a book on “dechanneling 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 gave the impression that he could go through it. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to get in or out.