Joseph Toonga’s Born to Manifest empowers and awakens’ – review

Words by Katie Hagan.

I read a quotation somewhere which said the danger with stereotypes is that they assume a whole story, when in truth they are insubstantial and ridden with bias. 

Just Us Dance Theatre’s Born to Manifest performed at The Place last week turns attention to the vicious stereotypes men of colour face in our society. Starring choreographer Joseph Toonga and dancer Theophillus ‘Godson’ Oloyade, Born to Manifest depicts real-life events that I, in my white-privilege, cannot ever fully understand.

The piece opens with a ray of light beaming onto Toonga’s back. Isolating this body part, the light accentuates the folds in his top, as he hunches, undulates and writhes, his breathing pattern steering the course of his movement and our intrigue.

Three gun shots perforate the space. Is it the sound of the police? Did they have to interrupt this moment? The frame changes to the dancer on the floor, pacifying the illusion he is fixated on in the distance. But Toonga is arrested, bamboozled, and frightened. He was just moving?

The frame shifts once more. Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s score pounds so hard it’s as if you are stuck in a steel box which is being repeatedly hit. Another dancer enters the stage – we don’t know if it is Toonga’s kin or a figment of his imagination. And this is where the narrative progresses; there is a beautiful, tender dynamic between them, especially during their contact work. They bear each other’s weight, they lightly flip and softly body-wave in canon, at varying levels. There’s some capoeira, and contemporary dance seasoned with hip-hopping. There’s a great connectivity between the two; they’ve got each other, they are preparing one another’s bodies for what is to come. It’s emotional and I am reluctant to categorise the movement too much as it feels as if it is bleeding from their bodies.

The recurring ape-noises leave a lasting impression. It gets underneath your skin. I’m only speculating, but I guess that when people tell you you’re this and you’re that, it erodes your soul to such an extent that you end up seeing something different in the mirror. For me the ape-cries not only expose the racist stereotypes in our society, they demonstrate the catastrophic effects stereotypes have on black mens’ mental health and the way they perceive themselves. What a tragedy.

The whole piece was not concerned with how the audience felt, and I enjoyed that. It’s so invested in the issues at hand, and that gives Born to Manifest a real authority. It also seeks to invite more black men into contemporary dance, so they are not put in the restrictive – and stereotypical – ‘urban’ dance enclave. That’s why it was really important for the young men from the Let’s Shine Mentorship Programme to precede Born to Manifest, with a strong piece about unity. As two works, they are the kinds of art that put change into motion and empower the next generation of dancers.

Born to Manifest is a song for male vulnerability, sensitivity, and the power of kinship. But as much as it’s about inspiring men, it’s also a nod to the bitter realisation that only society can change the problematic perceptions that it itself has created.

Header image: Camilla Greenwell.