Storyboard P: Where is the place for a genius of street dance?

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Storyboard P: Where is the place for a genius of street dance?
The dancer Storyboard P in New York, March 16, 2022. The gap between his category-defying artistry and his career options seems to expose a missing lane in American culture. Sabrina Santiago/The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- For a long time, people trying to describe dancer Storyboard P have reached for grand comparisons and superlatives. He’s the Basquiat of street dancing or a more virtuosic extension of Michael Jackson. He’s the best street dancer in the world or simply the best dancer. To back up these judgments, there is plentiful evidence online: cameos in videos for Jay-Z and high-art films by Arthur Jafa and Kahlil Joseph, appearances in commercials and loads of homemade footage in which he is the star, mind-blowing and one-of-a-kind.

Storyboard is exceptional, extraordinary. This is beyond doubt. The question that all of the praise and video proof raises but can’t answer is: Where does he fit?

This was already the question 10 years ago, when his fame began to spread from the Brooklyn dance battle scene into mainstream media. Talent is no guarantor of success in any field, but with Storyboard, the gap between his category-defying artistry and his career options seemed to expose a missing lane in American culture. In a 2014 profile in The New Yorker, a magazine that doesn’t run many profiles of street dancers, he wondered why he couldn’t get as much attention as rappers and spoke of plans to become “a visual recording artist,” signed to a music label that would send him on tour.

Those plans have not come to fruition. Storyboard is 31, and despite the burst of fame and millions of online views, his dancing seems to live pretty much in the same place as before: the semi-anonymous cameos, the lower-profile and self-made clips. On April 7-8, he is appearing in the courtyard of Performance Space New York, a storied East Village site of the avant-garde, for two nights of freestyle improvisation. But rather than answering the question of where he fits, these appearances only raise it again.

“I’ve been doing a lot,” Storyboard said recently, countering perceptions of unfulfilled promise. “It just depends on what you value.”

Part of the problem, as Jafa pointed out, is that Storyboard “is not a background 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 makes the most impact — like “Until the Quiet Comes,” which Joseph filmed for Flying Lotus — are ones in which the nominal star is barely present.

But in the music industry, ultimately, dancers are background unless they are also singers, which Storyboard is not. (He does rap.) And neither the art world nor the world of noncommercial dance is much more hospitable to an improvising street dancer, at least not one with Storyboard’s out-of-the-ordinary qualities. Jenny Schlenzka, Performance Space’s executive artistic director, said that she had been trying for years to present Storyboard and that, for reasons both institutional and particular to him, arranging the coming shows had been an adventure more complicated than she could have imagined.

​Some of those complications are historical. Trying to explain Storyboard’s importance, Jafa referred to Joseph’s film “BLKNWS,” in which cellphone footage of the dancer is accompanied by the voice of Fred Moten, a philosopher-poet. Moten talks about how the existential problems that 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 conundrum is how impossible it is to imagine an infrastructure around him that can allow him to sustain it.”

To Storyboard’s fans, his story is by now familiar. How as a shy child in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he discovered dance first as frighteningly exposing and then as empowering and addictive. How he received some formal training at Harlem School of the Arts, but learned much more from the dancers in his neighborhood, who were transforming the Jamaican dance style brukup into a local one called flex. How he began winning dance battles, but remained an outlier — too weird, at times too effeminate, too willing to go where others feared. How his dancing became an outlet of fantasy, an escape from difficult circumstances, and how it turned him into a channeler of dreams and nightmares.

Born Saalim Muslim, he adopted his moniker to signal his admiration for stop-motion animation, the sequences of images he learned to mimic through minute control of his muscles. (The P is left over from an earlier character, Professoar.) From flex, he also developed the illusion of floating and gliding.

“It’s like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk,” Jafa said, “where you’re moving one way but your body’s going another, but Story has figured out how to fragment it and play it along multiple axes.” Jafa connected this to African aesthetics, multiple (rather than singular) vantage points, a dynamic relation between subject and object.

Multiplicity is Storyboard’s thing. He can fracture his body into zigzags, lower and raise himself with the limbo hydraulics of a lowrider car, appear to dodge bullets and bend gravity with his leaning. But what makes his virtuosity truly spellbinding is how the style he calls “mutant” seems to draw from all dance, gathering whatever it needs, and how Storyboard uses it as a hypersensitive instrument, attuned to every aspect of music and everything around him, even as it is hooked up to an imagination that seems thrillingly, terrifyingly free. There’s no telling what he might do.

The fearlessness and the virtuosity earned Storyboard baffled respect within his dance community, and when people outside it discovered him, almost always online, some paid him the dubious compliment of saying that he transcended dance — that he reminded them of artists in mediums with more prestige. (Jafa, more complexly, said Storyboard levels the distinction between vernacular dance and modernism.) Even Storyboard can talk this way sometimes. He told me he is principally a writer and a storyteller. “Dance is like a side job,” he said.

It might be more accurate to say that dance is part of his way of interacting with the world. Before and after our conversation, he was absorbed in the music he was playing from his phone and feeling out surfaces — the walls, the ground, at one point my knee. As viewers of his videos can recognize, his meaningful idiosyncrasy extends to fashion. He wore a nonfunctioning watch that he said was a compass to gauge legends and a sparkly plastic lei, which later, when he was dancing for a photographer, he turned into a noose. He also said that his medium was clairvoyance, or “telepathia.”

Storyboard talks the way he dances. I was hoping to access “a deep thinker about 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 dizzying. Standard questions were non-starters or material for wordplay and freestyle rap. (How does he prepare in advance of his improvisations? “I think about it when I advance.”) Laughing a lot, Storyboard answered in free-associative poetry, riffing off the sounds of words, sometimes in rhyme.

Frequently, his answers were so densely coded I couldn’t keep up, and while trying to decipher the recording later, I discovered he was messing with me, at least part of the time. He told me to check out 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 institutions. And then I noticed that in Storyboard’s riff on being an underdog he had said, “You can’t be after the big bucks, you gotta be after the little bucks.”

Those who have worked with Storyboard call him eccentric, special, visionary, a genius. To me, he said, as he has in several interviews, that he is bipolar and schizophrenic. He spoke of stigma, and stigmata, but also of “this-ability,” not disability, and joked that “the C-word” means coherent.

This is another way he 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 shows up at your doorstep. In the arts sector, who’s willing to put up with this?”

Schlenzka got to know Storyboard after he performed at a gala, and having nowhere to sleep, stayed with her family for a few days, “dancing around the breakfast table.” Wanting to commission him, she decided as a point of equity to give him the same budget as other artists (ones with sets and rehearsals). But feeling that he required an unconventional approach, she partnered with Arika, an arts organization in Scotland that connects aesthetics with social justice.

In an email, Barry Esson of Arika described his organization’s role as trust-building and translation between Storyboard’s way of working and mainstream performance contexts. (Arika already had a relationship with the dancer, at first through Jafa.) He suggested that one reason Storyboard doesn’t get “the support his talent deserves” is “the ableist nature of the dance and visual arts worlds.”

“Story is a sweetheart, not a diva,” Jafa said. “It’s just that it’s difficult to get your arms wrapped around what’s being put forward. He’s a sprinter in a swimming pool.”

Might an artist like Storyboard be accommodated differently if he worked in a medium that made 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 that music has. Storyboard seems to be thinking along these lines, too, when he complains about “pop artists with a machine behind them” and how they “bite off” his inventions, and how YouTube takes down his videos because they use unlicensed music. Now he’s mainly on Instagram.

Storyboard’s manager, Shawn Griffith — whom Storyboard calls “Transac-shawn” — told me about some coming “big moves”: a TV show that can’t yet be announced, the creation of a “dance label” equivalent to Def Jam Recordings. Storyboard himself was more equivocal: “If you don’t handle your own business, a project is just a projection,” he said. (Though he did say he was working on a book about “de-channeling and rechanneling poltergeists,” which is “what dancers always be doing.”)

After the interview, I watched as Storyboard danced for the photographer. There was a brick wall behind him, the wall of Performance Space New York, and I thought for a moment that he was trying to climb it. Then he made it seem as if he might go through it. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to get in or get out.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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