TBB Talks … Born To Exist With Joseph Toonga

Joseph Toonga is a movement expressionist whose ability to create powerful stories through dance has earned him countless accolades and even more admirers.

The Cameroon-born performer currently holds the title of artistic director (and founder) of Just Us Dance Theatre and will also be choreographing for the Royal Ballet this year as part of its Diamond Celebration.

This year marks the final release of the artist’s groundbreaking performance trilogy on race, identity, and heritage; which began with Born to Manifest and Born to Protest and will be capped off with Born To Exist.

In this captivating conversation, we spoke to Joseph about his upcoming performance piece, going against the grain with his “raw” dance style and the mind-state he needs to enter every performance to be at his best...

Please introduce yourself…

Hi, my name is Joseph Toonga, I was born in Cameroon but I’ve lived most of my life in East London. I’m an East Londoner and I love hip-hop – yeah, that’s me!

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.

I would say that right now I’m reflective, motivated and I think, willing to take many risks.

Congratulations on your latest release Born to Exist: The Woman I Know! It becomes the third instalment in a trilogy of impactful performances including Born To Manifest and Born To Protest. In what ways did you build on the themes of your previous work?

Thank you, it’s been a journey. Having done Born to Manifest and Born to Protest, Born to Exist definitely feeds from the previous work. Born to Manifest was a reflection of the Black male’s journey within the UK, within the world, and how they are perceived, whilst Born to Protest highlights this in a different space. It was an outdoor work, which introduces a Black female, exploring what that does in the space where we’re around together and how we, as brothers, react around Black females, our mothers, our aunties, whoever. I think, with Born to Exist I am looking at the fact that I am a black man and so I can never really speak on behalf of a Black female, but through the piece, I am looking at my mum’s journey, my aunties’ journey, my friends’ journeys and how I see them. It’s also asking questions about their journeys and the common themes that I go through as a Black man and they go through as a Black female to see what are the common threads that we can explore, what is different about being a Black woman to not being a white woman. So the theme really of Born to Exist is looking at experiences and not trying to say this is our journey, it’s more have a look at our experiences, have a look at different moments in our lives and the different spaces we go into.

Aisha Webber- Born To Exist – Image Credit: Karin Jonker

The creative choice that will be most apparent to audiences is that Born to Exist: The Woman I Know is a female-focused performance. Are there specific women in your life who inspired this piece or is it more of a broader appreciation of womanhood?

Born to Exist is a female-focused performance, and there are many females that inspire me in my life. I wanted to ensure that the piece was a celebration, but also a reality check where their experiences are seen as being as important as mine and can be heard. I think that is one of the big focuses in the piece, trying to create a platform for others that I know I have, and how I can look to highlight other stories that are unfamiliar. I think that the story and just the presence of a Black woman on stage is a statement in itself. How I explore that energy and space is really important, and focusing on and not being apologetic about the fact that there will be Black females on stage and the majority of the creative team is Black, and celebrating that walking into these spaces, this is what you’re going to encounter. You’re going to encounter these ladies who are powerful, who are resilient, but who are also empathetic.

You’ve described the style of your performances as ‘raw and gritty’ in the past. How have you found that this has been received by audiences who are unfamiliar with this form of artistic expression?

The movement we are looking at is crump, it is hip-hop, and it has been received in a way, where if you’re unfamiliar with the genre, with the movement, with its qualities, sometimes you can mistake it as anger and as aggressive, but if you are familiar you know that it is a form of expression, a different way of expressing our history, our background. But what I have found is that, from the feedback we have received, the majority of audiences have been open and it has been really eye-opening for them. Of course, we also have people who feel like we should be saying more, and that the movement should do this or that, but the movement is what it is. It’s not really about pleasing the audience through movement that is aesthetically pleasing for your eye, it’s actually doing what we feel is needed and is relevant and if that’s crump or if that’s popping or if that’s breaking we will put it there as a form of expression.

When you decided to expand your range as a performer beyond hip-hop and street dance, what drew you towards ballet and contemporary dance? I find this path particularly interesting, given how contrasting these two genres appear to be from the ones you were already mastering.

I think the decision to expand my craft, and my movement language outside of hip-hop comes from what hip-hop is. It’s about culture, it’s about accepting others, it’s about many things, and I think that taught me that there are other influences that I can take, that can make me grow as an artist and make me grow even more as a mover. The transition into exploring contemporary and ballet movement was natural because that is what hip-hop gave me, it gave me the understanding that there are many things you can do, and so do it. That journey was easy, but at the same time, it was hard, because of the physical. Trying to adapt my body, trying to understand ‘ok cool, I move my body like this, but now I need to move like this, so I need to change the way I rehearse, practice, and exercise to make sure that those qualities can sit in my body more’, but I’ve always just had an enjoyment for dance, for the arts, for multilayers that express things that are relevant to my life and to other people around me.

Amanda De Souza, Aisha Webber and Paris Crossley- Born To Exist – Image Credit: Karin Jonker

Watching you perform is so powerful. As an audience member, it almost feels like we’re not supposed to be present whilst it’s happening because of how intimate and personal it is. It’s like you’re in a trance-like state and the rest of the world disappears. I assume that you’ve rehearsed/performed the routines hundreds of times but the energy you give off always makes it feel like the first time. What is going through your mind when you are performing?

If I’m honest about performing, I think it’s in the studio space where a lot of the sacrifices happen and where you make sure you create space and have a team that can support you, mentally, physically and spiritually, so that on stage you can give your all. You also have to be aware that you can’t give your whole spirit, your whole soul in every performance because that’s just detrimental to you as a person, and having to live a reality outside of the stage can be hard, so they are techniques I’ve gained over the years. My dramaturg has given me tools so I can be both expressive in my movements but also disconnect from my emotions so that I can think about something else and I can make a conscious choice in what I want to do emotionally and physically so that it feels real at that moment and doesn’t feel planned. I think that sometimes when people say, ‘oh I really felt your show’, it is because I try to make sure that everything I do is planned in terms of movements, but it is in the moment where I make a decision to make it a bit different because today I’m feeling like this. It’s also about listening to my body, understanding where I am physically and emotionally, and where the other performer is, who’s with me on stage.

Beyond entertainment, your performances interweave complex themes such as Black rebellion, joy and the relationship that we have with our communities, the world and ourselves. Did you always see dancing as an outlet for storytelling or was it something that you discovered later down the line?

I have always seen dancing as an outlet for everything that is happening outside. People say I’m political with my work, but I tend to say I’m not, I’m expressing what is going on in the world and what I feel the world is saying to me or to other people. Making choreography is relevant to what has happened to me personally, it’s my journey in life and there has to be a point where I learn to speak more. I think that dance, having that platform, allows me to speak and allows me to push and do things that maybe I’m not allowed to do in public, because, if I rebel in public about something that I think is normal, there are consequences that, being a Black guy, I have to face. I’m not allowed to be a certain way in public, and I’m not allowed to be annoyed or frustrated or passionate about something, because it could be translated as aggressive or threatening, so being able to express this in a theatre allows me the freedom to say ‘okay cool I’m allowed to do this here, but in here I’m going to do this, I’m going to challenge it and I’m going to get in your face, because hopefully, that makes you reflect on that feeling’.

Outside of your own performances, you also hold the prestigious titles of Founder of Just Us Dance Theatre and Emerging Choreographer in Residence at the Royal Ballet. Do you approach choreographing routines differently for other dancers than those for yourself?

Outside of performing, I am an Artistic Director of Just Dance Theatre and an Emerging Choreographer in Residence for the Royal Ballet and for me, those are two different hats. Just Us is more about me being an Artistic Director and less about being a creative choreographer, it’s being artistic in terms of finding ways to shape and create platforms for other young, black and ethnic minority artists, people and students who want to have a pathway in dance and need avenues and ventures to do so. Through Just Us, we set up the first Hip-Hop apprenticeship programme, mentorship programme and hip-hop development programme in both London and in Rio. We are collaborating with, as part of Born to Exist as well, three black females from Brazil on the project, Young Gifted and Black, which supports young black females in a favela in Rio. So I think Just Us is very much about creatives, about creating a platform and a space for people to be creative. What I like about being at the Royal Ballet is creatively it allows me to make a choice; I am a black man, being a black person in this space and making work. I’m sure there are a few black British Choreographers in this space at the Royal Ballet. Is that political? It’s not that I need to make my work political, more that I actually need to start reflecting more things about the world and not just keeping it to the surface. I think there’s beauty in the fact that I’m able to be that kind of choreographer in this space because you’ve brought me into this space, you’ve really understood what I do as an artist, so I feel like I’m in a space where I’m allowed to do this, I’m allowed to be different, I’m allowed to incorporate hip-hop, I’m allowed to bring different faces into the space.

Paris Crossley, Amanda De Souza, Aisha Webber and Joseph Toonga- Born To Exist – Image Credit: Karin Jonker

Now that your trilogy is coming to an end, where do you plan to take your career next?

The Trilogy is over creatively but now I think the next step is asking how we bring more exposure to the work and to the subject matter. There are ideas and plans to take it abroad to Europe as a Triple Bill, to festivals, to the US, but it’s really about trying to get the subject out more and see this fantastic group of artists in the space, exploring work that’s unfamiliar and actually trying to make work such as this more familiar in theatre spaces. So for me, that is the next aim, working out how we can have more spaces that showcase black and ethnic minority work.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU …

A book you have to have in your collection? I don’t have a particular book that I’m reading at the moment, but I have been reading a lot of different journals, and learning languages, that’s something I’ve been really interested in. I’m trying to learn Portuguese and so I’m trying to get as many Portuguese books, French, and English books as I can.

A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? That is very, very hard, but I would say right now there’s a song by one of my composers, a composer from the Trilogy – Mikey J of Boy Blue Entertainment, called Phoenix from an album Black, Whyte, Grey that kind of explains who I am at the moment. Phoenix starts off calm and gets edgy and then pulls back, and I think that would be the best way to describe life at the moment.

A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? The series that I’m watching at the moment and keep watching repeatedly is the Brazilian series Irmandade. It’s a very interesting series looking at prison, at brotherhood and how circumstances put people in certain places. So for me, it’s a series I like to watch, I’ve watched it actually, a couple of times already.

The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? The first production I remember seeing was a piece at Sadler’s Wells by Rambert. I can’t remember what it was, but I just loved the fact they were all moving energetically, and at that time they were using R&B and Hip-Hop music, so it definitely caught my attention.

What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? We got our first review of the show, and it’s actually really great, but what’s made me sad is the naivety within that review that shows me there is still a lot of work to be done in how people reflect on their own biases, and how they try to analyse things a bit more, but at the same time, I was happy that hopefully, this will get more people to come and see the show.

What’s made me mad this week is that what we explored in the piece happened in real life. Being profiled in the supermarket, and that my dancers had to go through that, that I had to go through that, it just makes me mad that the story, that we are talking about in the work, in Born to Manifest, in Born to Protest, in Born to Exist is still happening constantly right now.

What’s made me glad this week is I’m appreciating that I can be in a studio, in a theatre, I can travel, and I feel really grateful for that opportunity, because if I’m being honest, I didn’t see it happening in my life. I’m always quite reflective after we’ve done a bit of a tour, I’m actually really proud of what I’m doing and of the team around me, and just in awe that, regardless of any good or bad news, we are in spaces that traditionally we shouldn’t be in, but that we should be in, and we should hold our heads up high and be proud and celebrate that.


Born to Exist is at the Place London on 25-26 October and on tour www.justusdancetheatre.com

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