Whoever tries to describe the dancer Storyboard P has long resorted to big comparisons and superlatives. He’s the Basquiat of street dance, or a more virtuoso extension of Michael Jackson. He is the best street dancer in the world or simply the best dancer. To support these judgments, there is plenty of evidence online: cameos in Videos for Jay Z and high art films by Arthur Jafa and Kahlil Joseph, appearances in advertising and lots of homemade footage of him starring, mind-blowing and one-of-a-kind.
Storyboard is extraordinary, extraordinary. This is beyond doubt. The question that all the praise and video evidence raises but can’t answer is: Where does it fit?
That question was already being asked 10 years ago, when his fame began to spread from the Brooklyn dance battle scene to mainstream media. Talent is no guarantee of success in any field, but with Storyboard, the chasm between his artistry, which defies category, and his career options seemed to reveal a missing spot in American culture. In a 2014 profile in The New Yorker, a magazine that doesn’t have many profiles of street dancers, he wondered why he couldn’t get as much attention as rappers and talked about plans to become “a visual recording artist.” to which he signed a music label that sent him on tour.
These plans did not materialize. Storyboard is 31, and despite the burst of fame and millions of online views, his dancing seems pretty much in the same place as before: the semi-anonymous cameos, the more understated and homemade clips. On April 7th and 8th he performs in the courtyard Performance space New York, a storied avant-garde East Village site, for two nights of freestyle improvisation. But instead of answering the question of where he fits in, these performances just bring it up again.
“I’ve done a lot,” Storyboard said in a recent interview, contradicting the perception of unfulfilled promises. “It just depends on what you value.”
Part of the problem, as Jafa pointed out in an interview, is that Storyboard “is not a background dancer”. Jafa said he could use storyboard “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 where storyboard has the most impact — like “Until the peace comes” filmed by Joseph for Flying Lotus – are ones in which the nominal star is barely present.
But in the music industry, dancers are ultimately background unless they’re also singers, which storyboard isn’t. (He raps.) And neither the art world nor the world of non-commercial dance is much more hospitable to an improvisational street dancer, at least not one with the extraordinary qualities of storyboard. Jenny Schlenzka, Executive Artistic Director of Performance Space, said that she has been trying to present storyboard for years and that for institutional and special reasons organizing the upcoming shows has been an adventure for him that is more complicated than she imagines could have imagined.
Some of these complications are historical. 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 philosopher-poet Fred Moten. Moten speaks of how the existential issues Black people face are “so deep that we are compelled to dance” and that dance is “higher language.” Storyboarding, Jafa said, “has taken the black dance to unprecedented heights, but the mystery is how impossible it is to envision an infrastructure around it that would enable it to sustain it.”
His story is now familiar to fans of storyboard. How, as a shy kid in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he discovered dance first as frighteningly exposing and then as empowering and addictive. How he received formal training at the Harlem School of the Arts but learned a lot more from the dancers in his neighborhood, who adapted the Jamaican dance style brukup into a local one called flex. How he started winning dance battles but remained an outlier — too weird, too soft at times, too willing to go where others were afraid. How his dancing became an outlet for the imagination, an escape from difficult circumstances, and how it made him a channeler of dreams and nightmares.
A native of Saalim Muslim, he took his nickname to express his admiration for stop-motion animation, the sequences of images he learned to imitate through minute control of his muscles. (The P is left over from an earlier character, Professoar.) He also developed the illusion of floating and gliding from Flex.
“It’s like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk,” Jafa said, “where you move in one direction but your body moves in another, but Story figured out how to fragment it and play it along multiple axes.” Jafa linked this to African Aesthetics, multiple (rather than single) points of view, a dynamic relationship between subject and object.
Variety is the thing of Storyboard. He can break his body into zigzags, lower and rise with a lowrider’s levitation hydraulics, dodge bullets, and bend gravity with his tilt. But what makes his virtuosity truly mesmerizing is how the style he calls “Mutant” seems to draw from all dance, gathering everything it needs, and how Storyboard uses it as a hyper-sensitive instrument that touches every aspect of the music and even everything around it is attuned as it is linked to a fantasy that seems exciting and frighteningly free. There’s no telling what he might do.
The fearlessness and virtuosity that Storyboard brought to his dance community earned him respect, and when people outside discovered him, almost always online, some gave him the dubious compliment that he went beyond dance – that he brought them to artists in media more prestige remembered . (Jafa, more complex, said storyboard leveled the distinction between folk dance and modern.) Even storyboard can sometimes talk like that. He told me that he is primarily a writer and storyteller. “Dancing is like a part-time job,” he says.
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 engrossed in the music playing from his phone, patting surfaces — the walls, the floor, at one point my knee. As viewers of his videos can see, his meaningful idiosyncrasy extends to fashion. He wore a non-working watch, which he said was a compass to measure legends, and a sparkling plastic chain that he later turned into a noose while dancing for a photographer. He also said that his medium was clairvoyance or “telepathy”.
Storyboard speaks as he dances. I had hoped to gain access to “a deep thinker about practice and process,” as critic Greg Tate characterized him in a profile for The Wire. But storyboarded conversations often felt like a boxing match with a Zen master — not hostile, just giddy. 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 progress.”) Storyboard responded with much laughter in free-associative poetry, rippling the sound of words, sometimes in rhyme.
Often his answers were so tightly coded that I couldn’t keep up, and when I later tried to decipher the recording I discovered that he was turning me on, at least at times. He told me to see his performance at the Grammys with Alicia Keys singing “Underdog,” but when I looked, instead of Storyboard, I found Lil Buck, a street dancer who is finding more success in mainstream dance institutions. And then I noticed that in Storyboard’s Riff about being an underdog, he had said, “You can’t go after the big bucks, you have to go after the little bucks.”
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 spoke of stigma and stigmata, but also “that 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’ll call you back, sometimes he’ll call you in the middle of the night, sometimes he’ll show up on your doorstep. Who in the arts sector is willing to put up with that?”
Schlenzka met Storyboard after he performed at a gala, and because she had nowhere to sleep, she stayed with her family for a few days and “dance around the breakfast table.” Since she wanted to commission him, she decided, for the sake of fairness, to give him the same budget as other artists (those with sets and rehearsals). But she felt he needed an unconventional approach and teamed up with him Arikaan arts organization in Scotland that combines aesthetics with social justice.
In an email, Arika’s Barry Esson described his organization’s role in building trust and translation between the way storyboard works and mainstream performance contexts. (Arika already had a relationship with the dancer, initially through Jafa.) He suggested that one reason Storyboard isn’t getting “the support his talent deserves” is “the ableistic nature of the dance and visual arts world.” is.
“The story is a treasure, not a diva,” said Jafa. “It’s just difficult to attend to what’s being brought up. He’s a sprinter in the pool.”
Could an artist like Storyboard be housed differently if they work in a medium that makes more money? Noting the gap between storyboarding Gabe and his career, Jafa pointed to the fact that dance has not been commodified 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 off” his inventions and how YouTube takes down his videos for using unlicensed music. Now it’s mostly on Instagram.
Storyboard’s manager, Shawn Griffith — whom Storyboard calls “Transac-shawn” — told me about some upcoming “big steps”: a TV show that’s yet to be announced, the launch of a “dance label” that Def Jam Recordings corresponds. Storyboard itself was more ambiguous: “Unless you mind your own business, a project is just a projection,” he said. (Though he said he’s working on a book on “de-channeling and re-channeling poltergeists,” which “is what dancers always do.”)
After the interview, I watched Storyboard dance for the photographer. Behind him was a brick wall, the wall of Performance Space New York, and for a moment I thought he was trying to climb it. Then he pretended to get through it. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to get in or out.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/31/arts/dance/storyboard-p-performance-space-new-york.html Storyboard P: Where’s the place for a street dance genius?