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In Conversation with Joseph Toonga

Tue 7 January 2020

London-raised choreographer Joseph Toonga explores how a narrative can be physically expressed through hip-hop and contemporary dance. His powerful new double bill ‘Born to Manifest’ powerfully illuminates the experience of young Black British men. The spring tour of the performance is kicking off at MAC this month, and we wanted to have a few words with Joseph before it gets going…

How did you start dancing?

It was accidental really; I played sports and my older cousin danced. I joined after-school clubs to keep myself out of trouble and dance was what I enjoyed. One other friend joined me.

You started Just Us Dance Theatre in 2007 which has also established two outreach, mentoring programmes – what triggered your wish to branch out in this way?

When I was younger, the environment around me wasn’t always positive. I had a lot of people who really mentored me and steered me in the right direction. I want to make sure I’m nurturing the next generation. No matter the project we’re working on, the mentoring aspect is really important to me.

You’re both performing in and choreographing Born to Manifest. How do you find the balance between these two roles?

When it comes to performance, the creative team around me are incredibly helpful in shaping it. We have a rehearsal director, a dramaturg, and outside eyes who really contribute, but it tends to be closer towards the end of rehearsals that I really become a performer and step out of the choreographing role.

The whole performance is one hour and it’s just you and one other male dancer, Theo Oloyade. There are some really intense and intimate moments – does this require a strong, professional connection between yourself and your dance partner?

It’s definitely personal - an amazing trust has developed between us and he’s more like a brother, really. Right at the beginning of the first rehearsals for the show, the whole team went to Italy for about three weeks and had to really bond together. Not being familiar with the area, not knowing the language, and being generally out of our comfort zones ended up being one of the best things for the performance. Right now, a new dancer is starting to join us on the new tour as Theo had previous commitments. I’m looking forward to starting the whole process with him.

What kind of audience do you feel has responded the best to the show so far?

It’s actually been such a varied response. Occasionally a couple of people have gotten up and left in-between the shows – I guess they couldn’t take the chimp sounds – and a good few times we have received emails from young, white females explaining how there were moments in the show they could really relate to. I think this is because the key theme to the performance is really about human relationships and no matter the audience we’re targeting, that really stands out.  We’ve also had some interesting reviews.

Some of the dance styles incorporated in the show, particularly KRUMP (an expressive and energetic movement) have been described as ‘aggressive’. This is exactly the stereotype of young Black men that you want to challenge. What word in particular would you like to replace ‘aggressive’ with?

Well KRUMP for us is really spiritual and grounding; it actually stands for ‘Kingdom Radically Uplifted Mighty Praise’. It emerged as an expression of what hip-hop dancers felt about society where they were. I think people can feel against it because KRUMP says something they don’t want to hear. So, I suppose the word would be ‘spiritual’.

So, what’s next?

We’re touring further in the UK later this year. Eventually it would be really great to take the show to America. However, the next really big thing is taking place over summer: an outdoor performance of the show restyled as Born to Protest. As young Black men don’t necessarily feel welcome in theatre spaces, we want to take it to them. We’re hoping to tour to different cities with Born to Protest, and challenge the stereotype people may create when they see large groups of Black men walking together.

For those who’ve never seen anything like this before, how would you describe Born to Manifest?

I guess I would say it’s intense, but sensitive. There’s actually a quote from a review that I feel really ‘got’ the piece and can say it even better than I can: “The show is a song for male vulnerability, sensitivity and the power of kinship”.

Born to Manifest will be performed at MAC on 31 January at 7.30pm. For more information and tickets, please click here.