Born to Manifest is the latest dance work by the acclaimed choreographer and performer Joseph Toonga and his company Just Us Dance Theatre. A hip-hop piece for two dancers (Toonga and Dani Harris-Walters), it is a powerful, invigorating, enraging and almost unbearably moving evocation of the experience of young black men in Britain.
As a performing arts critic, I see a lot of stage works. Consequently, I hope, I have developed a strong sense of the difference between cheap sentiment and the real deal.
Born to Manifest is undeniably and abundantly the real deal. Within the first five minutes, as we witness an urgent, distressing choreography representing a young black man’s terrifying experience of stop and search, I confess, I was on the brink of tears.
A performer, arm outstretched to protect himself from the justifiably feared use of force, adopts a position of both terror and defiance. He repeats, over and over again, the phrase “I just want to go home”.
The performer is alone in the space, the cops an absent memory. This absence, combined with the extraordinary physicality and immediacy of Toonga’s movement, throws into shockingly stark relief the traumatic psychological consequences of everyday racist harassment by the police.
The movement maintains this kind of visceral power throughout the hour-long performance. Together and separately Toonga and Harris-Walters generate an atmosphere that is so continuously intense that it often borders on the claustrophobic.
While the incessant tension of the piece is a massive strength, it should be said that this is not a remorselessly bleak work. Its contemplation of the relations between young black men in Britain today contains beautiful moments of mutual recognition and human solidarity. Indeed, the dance itself achieves a remarkable, paradoxical balance between muscularity and subtlety, violence (both physical and psychological) and tenderness.
One of the most memorable aspects of the piece is the startlingly direct way in which it addresses the vicious “monkey chant”. It is hard to imagine a more powerful treatment of the vile gesture that, appallingly, seems to be on the increase in football stadiums in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, but which has its roots very deep in the sickening psyche of colonial slavery and pseudo-scientific racism.
The hip-hop soundtrack by Michael “Mikey J” Asante, in which the music is intercut with the sounds of the street, is an inch-perfect, tailor made accompaniment to Toonga’s choreography. It has the beat and rhythm the dance requires, and the passion and potency its subject demands.
Designed with a superb, stark simplicity, and lit ingeniously by Anthony Hateley, Born to Manifest (which has a few dates left in a sporadic tour) is dance theatre of the most original and impressive kind. Like Oona Doherty’s brilliant Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer, with which it has much in common, Toonga’s piece deserves to be showcased at the world’s leading arts festivals.
For tour dates visit: justusdancetheatre.org