Born to Manifest

Choreographed by Joseph Toonga, music by Michael 'Mikey J' Asante
Just Us Dance Theatre
The Place

Before Joseph Toonga’s latest dance work, there is a hip-hop curtain raiser created in only five rehearsals as part of Just Us Dance’s Let’s Shine Mentorship Programme, choreographed by its nine dancers and shaped by Joseph Toonga and Ricardo Da Silva.

Although it comes first, this group work is described as “a response to Born to Manifest” and it too presents the black male experience. Nine dancers mainly in unison, moving together, sometimes in conflict, closing into a tight huddled circle, conferring or getting hyped ready for action, when they fall to the ground there is support from a fellow.

This seems to be about sorting out any conflict between us to meet serious challenges together but has echoes too of gang warfare, especially when altogether they brandish fingers like pistols.

Born to Manifest begins with a very slow fade-up from darkness to reveal the solitary figure of Joseph Toonga, his back to the audience, a big man with his hands held before him warding something off or pressing against it, his breathing growing more heavy with the increase in effort. He turns to face us but the threat is still there.

This dancework is Toonga’s presentation of the experience of young black men in our society: his first-hand experience since arriving as a boy from Cameroon two decades ago also the result of research interviewing a range of black men from 17 to 45 about their experience: meeting prejudice and discrimination, police questioning who and what you are and why you are in a certain place, learning how to protect yourself, gang culture dangers, learning to fit in and not appear threatening.

At first, this is a long way from the frantic, angular energy that often characterises hip-hop, movement is slower with more gradual positioning, an athletic body morphing into new shapes, but as the effort becomes greater and 'Mickey J’ Asante’s score more staccato and metallic there are swirls of avoidance, embattled gestures.

There is only so long a person can hold out against life’s pressures and at times Toonga collapses to the floor, recovering painfully. It's then that Theophillus ‘Godson’ Oloyade slowly emerges from the darkness to support Toonga's failing and falling body, gradually gaining the trust of a man who at first may see him as part of the forces against him.

Support and recovery pass through momentary sparring to teamwork, acrobatic floor work, smooth lifts over the shoulder. There are wild leaps, chest thumping and gibbon-like barking.

Danger temporarily put aside and Toonga strong again, he leaves. Then Oloyade goes through a similar experience, the choreography a variation of what has gone before and just as riveting to watch, with the slighter-built Oloyade now the one who is lifted and carried as the lights slowly fade. The whole work, which smoothly blends elements of contemporary dance and hip hop, becomes a physical metaphor of the need for Brothers to stand proud and to support each other in what seems a continuing struggle. It’s a powerful performance!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton