Joseph Toonga on Born to Exist | interview

The final piece in Joseph Toonga’s acclaimed trilogy comes to The Place next week 25-26 October. We reviewed the first piece Born to Manifest a couple of years ago, and the second work Born To Protest toured the UK to outdoor festivals last year.

Ahead of Born to Exist’s performance next week, we sat down with Joseph Toonga to talk about the work.

Born to Exist is part of a trilogy – can you give us a brief description of how the three works fit together thematically?

The three works fit together as they look at the themes of black excellence, black experience and black journeys. I think the thread between the three pieces is the insight into the journeys and experiences of black brotherhood and sisterhood. The trilogy overall looks at relationships and how they are perceived and seen through another lens.

When you started out with the trilogy did you already have in your mind the overriding themes of each piece? Did you always know you would end up telling this female-focused story?

No, originally Born to Exist was meant to be part of a double bill when I did my R&D in 2018. It was meant to be a solo on myself and then a trio on three females. However, I realised that those two stories needed a separate show, so I started Born to Manifest which became a duet. From there, I realised that I wanted more people who looked like me and reflected my journey and my background to see the pieces of work. Born to Protest came out of this and was an outdoor piece because I wanted non-theatre goers and non-dance lovers to be able to access work like this. So the trilogy came out of the want for more people to be exposed to Born to Manifest.

I always knew the last part of the trilogy was going to be female-focused as I wanted one part of the work to reflect the different females in my life and my upbringing. I also wanted to bring in other viewpoints and shine a light upon the journeys of their mothers, aunties, best friends and cousins.

Born To Exist tells the story of how you were brought up by your mum and aunties when you came to the UK – can you briefly describe this experience?

I think Born to Exist has moved past my upbringing. My upbringing was a stimulus, but through the process we had a survey and I spoke to a lot of people, including the performers. I tried to get consensus from the performers on the themes and issues covered and on how we explored them. We didn’t want to make it cliched or stereotypical or for it to feel like I’m telling a story of how they are. It’s more of an insight from my research and their opinions, and we’re presenting their journey to you.

In terms of my experience growing up, it was good, but it was also hard because I had to watch my aunties and my mum be very resilient in a place that wasn’t home for them. And of course, there were certain scenarios that they couldn’t hide from me as a child. But they tried their best to make sure that we were brought up in a positive, hard-working environment. They really tried to form a sense of community, a sense of home, a sense of being proud to be African, to be black, because it wasn’t the norm at that time.

What was it like for you to move to the UK from Cameroon 25 years ago?

It’s hard to talk about this because I don’t have a lot of memories – just images and pictures. I know my family had to work hard and sacrifice a lot for myself and my cousin to be in this country, so I’m grateful for that and I try to limit the amount of questions I ask. I think my mind is still trying to gather information and put it together…so it’s still very puzzling.

Can you tell us a bit about how you make your work – the collaboration process involved with your cast and creative team?

I think it varies depending on the subject and what I’m exploring. For Born To Exist, we had a research and development period where we solely focused on quality and texture of movement. We looked at what movement within hip-hop spoke and didn’t speak and how we could break down and decode the norms associated with a female style and a male style.

In terms of the creative process, I always try to find a team who believe in my idea but will also challenge me when they feel it’s the right time. I always have a premise for my creative team that they understand my vision and what I want to do, and I have to trust that they will match my vision. I think that’s the same way I work with my dancers – I give them stuff, but I’m also very interested in what they give back and how they respond to the space.

Why do you feel it is important to tell your story at this time? Is there a political message you want to get across?

It’s a message that needs to come at this time because we’re at a point where while black and ethnic minority stories are starting to come out in little drops, there is a lack of focus on black female stories. I don’t want to neglect the stories of my mum and my cousins, and other black and biracial females whose stories are not being told because they’re not in the mainstream. There’s so much beauty in their journeys and strength in their sisterhood, and I felt that my work needed to highlight this. I have a spotlight right now where people are wanting to hear and see my opinion, so I think it’s the right time to put this work out and start conversations that will hopefully give others a platform to make work and know that their story is relevant.

I don’t try to convey a political message, but I think the journeys and stories are political in and of themselves. There are three black women on stage who all come from different backgrounds, different tones of black, a different mix of what black can look like. The political message is in the piece of work: to see them how they are, for who they are, and see their journeys. Who they are is important and we need to hear their stories. We need to celebrate their journeys and realise that their stories are just as complex as anyone else’s.

How do you imagine seeing the work will affect its audiences / make them feel?

I don’t have an expectation in terms of what people should come out feeling, but I want people to think – to think about others around them who don’t look like them and consider their journey. The piece isn’t trying to educate anyone; it’s about giving an insight into someone’s journey.

How would you describe your choreographic style?

Fluid, raw, a mixture of hip-hop and contemporary language. I would describe my style as hard-bodied – taxing on the body but in a way that hopefully activates different muscles. My movements are very action-based, very practical movements that sometimes don’t feel nice but look nice to the audience.

You are Emerging Choreographer in Residence at the Royal Ballet, has this had an impact on your career, plans, trajectory?

If I’m being honest I don’t know yet. I think it has had a personal impact on me, and I’m still on a journey to feel like I belong because not many people look like me in that space. I feel a responsibility to expose new creative ways and make sure I implement my creative practice on the company and on that part of the dance sector, as much as take everything that they give. There is a reason why I’m there, and my journey and experience is valid and needs to be in those spaces.

In terms of trajectory, I couldn’t say, but I hope other companies that see me want me in their spaces and want to commission me. I hope that what I do can also open up more doors for other artists who look like me or have similar journeys.

Anything else you’d like to say about Born to Exist to potential audiences?

I hope it gets the exposure it needs in order for more people to come and watch these stories.

Joseph with the dancers.

Born to Exist comes to The Place 25-26 October. Book here.