Joseph Toonga's Just Us Dance Theatre. Photograph by Irven Lewis

Ups and Downs

Joseph Toonga, co-founder and artistic director of Just Us Dance Theatre

Joseph Toonga is the co-founder and artistic director of Just Us Dance Theatre, a London-based dance collective started in 2007. Just Us is the resident company at Greenwich Dance, and explores the intersection of urban and classical styles, weaving together elements of hip-hop, contemporary dance, physical theatre and spoken word.

Toonga choreographs and performs with his company, which is presenting a bill this month at the Place featuring new works from artists in Just Dance’s New and Notable and Let’s Shine programmes. He was recently commissioned to create a new piece for Richard Alston Dance Company, also premiering this month at the Place, as part of “Alston at Home,” a bill created to celebrate R.A.D.C.’s twentieth anniversary.

Here Toonga tells me about his background, his aims as an artist, and where he sees Just Us going from here.

“Alston At Home” is on at the Place, London, from 10-13 June. “Just Us Dance Theatre Platform” will show at the Place on 19 and 20 June.

Sara Veale: What are your early experiences with dance? How did you get started and when did you know that dance was something you wanted to pursue professionally?

Joseph Toonga: I first started dance when I was at Lister Community School around 2003/2004, and this is where I met Ricardo Da Silva, who later on with the rest of our group helped found Just Us Dance Theatre. At Lister I first started doing a bit of hip-hop. I got taught by Kofi Mingo and Fm, both from RainCrew and Boy Blue Entertainment. Although I was enjoying dancing, at that time it wasn’t my passion; I was more of a sports guy, more of a football guy. But as time went on I really started to fall in love with dance.

From time to time I could be very disruptive, and I felt like dance gave me a sense of calmness. Dance gave me a focus and a sense of purpose to do something very positive in my life, because looking about there wasn’t so much positive stuff around me.

After leaving Lister I went onto NewVic Sixth Form College, where things actually started building a bit more. I got introduced to East London Dance, and that’s where I met Bonnie Oddie, who was the founding artistic director of the youth company, and Curtis James. They are two of the main people who have influenced what I do, and what Just Us Dance does and strives for. Bonnie was very strong on nurturing and supporting young dancers through East London Youth Dance. She really did that for me. Curtis really installed discipline and a sense of structure to what I needed to do as an artist. I fell in love with dance even more, and it made me think to myself you know what, this is a route I can take and try to make a little difference in society.

From there I went on to Lewisham College, where I was influenced by many people. There was one performance I saw that really got me. It was by Rambert. I can’t remember what the exact piece was, but just seeing such powerful performance I was like, wow, I want to do that—well, not exactly that, but I want to have that same presence they have.

I think from then on I knew I wanted to be a professional. I wanted to do something in dance. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew it would be about expressing my background, and also helping out younger artists and younger students around East London, in disadvantaged areas, because that’s where I come from. I feel that once you start reaching a certain place on the ladder, you have to give back to the younger generation, who need it to help them succeed.

SV: You’re obviously invested in helping shape the next generation of contemporary dancers. Tell me about the programmes you’ve started to help train up-and-coming artists.

JT: One of the goals for Just Us is educational. We really want to establish and develop the youth programmes we have at the moment. Our Let’s Shine mentorship is about supporting and nurturing young students and artists around London, trying to enable more access for them to a wider audience. I think dance is a really powerful tool for change.

We also have New and Notable, a programme for emerging hip-hop theatre artists to help develop and challenge their artistic practice. The programme provides an alternative environment for them to investigate their specific interests in dance. They have a personal mentor and performance opportunities to show their work.

What motivated me to start New and Notable was my own dance journey. For a long time I found myself in this in-between stage where I was past youth but not yet professional. I felt very alone and like there were no opportunities, and I didn’t know how to push my work to the next level. So that’s why I created New and Notable—so artists had a place to go so and don’t get stuck in this in-between stage.

To nurture and support is our company’s ethos. It was important for Just Us to create something that gives back, and this seemed like the perfect thing. This year is going really well. It’s challenging—I’m learning new things all the time as an artist, and as a company we’re learning how to run programmes like these. We’ve seen interesting things from the artists so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing their product for the show at The Place this month.

SV: What kind of works are on display at this upcoming show?

JT: It’s a scratch night of what the company does. All the works are either from the company or the above programmes. One is a new collaboration we want to expand on with Botis Seva of Far from the Norm.

The work on display shows the purity of hip-hop and also the integration of hip-hop in a contemporary context. As a collective we want to demonstrate how hip-hop culture and dance has influenced us, how it’s changed some of our lives and given us a voice.

SV: Indeed, hip-hop figures strongly into the brand of contemporary dance the company pursues. What’s the motivation behind this? What do you hope audiences will take away from your work?

JT: To me contemporary means what’s happening today, and how we respond to what society’s doing today. There’s a lot of integration with communities and cultures, and that’s what Just Us Dance Theatre Company is doing. I feel that what we are doing is integrating the urban interests people have with classic language. I wouldn’t say we’re a fusion, but we’re an eclectic collective that likes to mix and explore different cultures.

I find that contemporary dance gives us a sense of structure for some of the other movement vocabularies we have. Elements we use in the company are house, popping, elements of Krump, and spoken word. With those styles we look at how we can take the rawness and complexity of what hip-hop has to offer but shape it with classical movements. I think that’s the fascination we have as a company—to see how we can really intertwine our movements. You can do anything with any style of dance, but it’s really important for the dancers and choreographers to understand the foundation.

What we’d like our audience to take away is that we’re making work that we hope people today can relate to. Sometimes you don’t have to understand exactly why or what the dancer is doing; you just get a feeling of what the movements mean to you.

SV: In 2013 you completed a period of training at London Contemporary Dance School, the dance conservatoire at The Place. How have your LCDS studies influenced your approach as a choreographer?

JT: My time at London Contemporary Dance School really helped me choreographically. It helped me to understand more about structure, how to put something in more of a theatrical way, how to use different mediums and dance styles and to think about the audience.

Tutors who had a big influence on me at London Contemporary Dance School inlcude Rick Nodine and Patricia Rianne. Rick helped me in terms of improvisation, ways of seeing dance and thinking about not only as the performer but as the audience—will they get what I’m trying to portray? And what I think Patricia really helped me on is dynamics—looking at length, looking at power, looking at energy and what kind of dynamic I wanted to offer as an artist.

SV: Who else do you find yourself influenced by?

JT: I’ve had many influences choreographically. One is Bonnie Oddie. She has been there throughout my career, a bit of a mother figure to me, and seeing what she does with youth dance has really helped me on the educational side.

I really admire Wayne McGregor, and the opportunity I had to work with him a few years ago was amazing. It helped me understand about detail and purpose, and about not analysing all the movements so much—sometimes that first move you do is actually okay and might be right thing to do.

Wayne really stood out as a collaborator. I feel the way his mind works, the way he explores movement with his dancers, is crazy—I haven’t seen it been done before. And I found that Wayne as a person made me like him more as a choreographer, because he was so down to earth and—this is going to sound stupid – he actually just took time to know my name, which is a really nice thing. It doesn’t happen a lot. Usually when you meet choreographers of a high stature, they really don’t take the time to get to know you during the project; it’s like you’re there, do the thing and go. But he actually took time to find out what I was doing, to help me, to help the company, so that’s why he’s really stood out.

Another influence for me is Kenrick Sandy from Boy Blue Entertainment. He’s influenced me in terms of where he’s at now, where I feel he’s brought hip-hop and street dance. The way he uses different mediums on stage is different to many other hip-hop companies. I feel what he does is unique, and I can relate to him on personal level—he’s also from East London, and that’s helped me to believe it’s possible to follow this route.

I first saw Kendrick when I was 14 years old, and seeing him dance I was in awe of what he did and what he stood for. And now having had the opportunity to work with him, to be around him and to see what he does, it’s just made me appreciate him more. As an artist he’s very caring and pays attention to the needs of others as artists. I think that’s a very good quality to have. He’s also very disciplined and doesn’t give you room to slack.

A collaboration I would love to do one day if ever I got a large sum of money would be between Just Us, Boy Blue and Wayne McGregor. That would be a very crazy, exciting collaboration for people to see. I think something really special could happen if all those minds came together.

SV: What other goals do you have in mind for Just Us? Where do you hope to see things go from here?

JT: Major successes for us so far include being commissioned for the Germany Nation Youth Ballet (Bundesjugendballett), presenting a night at Greenwich Dance, successfully securing Arts Council Funding for a project, receiving the Deutsche Bank Awards for Creative Enterprises 2013, and being able to present our first-ever platform at the Place this month.

I think step by step we are going somewhere. We want to do tours, nationally and internationally, and we want people to see our work. We want to become more established as a company, hopefully become an associated company with an organisation and eventually get to perform at Sadler’s Wells—that is a personal dream of all of ours. At the same time, influencing and inspiring younger audiences, dancers and people from the community is something we will always aim for.

SV: You personally are already well on your way to big projects, having recently been commissioned to create a piece on the dancers of Richard Alston Dance Company as part of its twentieth birthday celebration at The Place this month. What can you tell me about the piece?

JT: The commission with Richard has been a great honor. Working with the dancers from Richard Alston Dance Company has been fun and intense, physically intense. I really enjoyed it and am very grateful for this opportunity.

The piece we’ve created looks at gracefulness and tension in the body. I was looking at small patterns, and a big element of it was exploring popping, going through the foundation with the dancers, as well as the more familiar contemporary aspects. I would say the piece is based around power—the power of balancing tension, strength, beauty and gracefulness in yourself.

My relationship with Richard has been really positive since my first year at London Contemporary Dance School. He’s really helped me as a mentor. I feel like one of the most important things to do for an artist is to nurture them personally as well as choreographically. He’s really taken a personal interest in me, and that’s helped me understand what I want to do. Choreographically, he’s helped me look at different music and how I can challenge what I do and what the company does whilst retaining what’s true to me. What’s been nice about this commission is that he’s allowed me to be me and not asked me to change or adapt to the company; it’s more the company that’s had to adapt to what I do, and that’s been a great privilege.

SV: Do you have any other projects in the works?

JT: Yeah, we have other projects in the works. Some can’t be talked about yet, but I’m really looking forward to them. Hopefully later this year we’ll be working on a new collaboration between Just Us and Far From the Norm that explores the subject of depression, which is a sensitive subject to both the company and society. This is a work we want reach new people with. Other projects include working again with the German National Youth Ballet and also a new commission at The Place.

SV: As a graduate of a British contemporary dance school and now a professional choreographer, do you have any thoughts on the recent comments Hofesh Shechter, Akram Khan and Lloyd Newson made about the quality of contemporary training in the UK, in which they deemed UK graduates “outclassed by fitter, stronger and more versatile counterparts” from elsewhere?

JT: At the end of the day this is a few artists’ opinion about what they see, and personally I don’t think the schools in the UK should feel they have to cater to specific companies. The schools are there to cater to the whole of the dance sector—for example, by creating the next chief executive of a dance organisation, or the next person who changes the educational system and makes dance more accessible in schools.

What I do slightly agree with, from what I read, is that the schools could be a bit more disciplined. But to say we are outclassed is something I’d question. The training I’ve done is certainly strong enough. I think it’s more of an individual choice for students to push themselves whilst training, as the school can only provide so much.

I think maybe successful companies hold a responsibility, as they are in the position to help develop dancers rather than complain about them. From what I’ve seen there are many dancers in the UK with an excellent foundation, and in my opinion it’s not just about the technique a dancer has; it’s about how they develop and use this during a performance, and this is where I feel successful companies can help to develop these dancers.

SV: What general advice would you give a young dancer or choreographer seeking help with their development?

JT: I would tell them to really believe in their own ideas, because if they don’t, who will? Also one thing I’ve learnt is always try to have a positive attitude. The life of an artist is a long journey, and full of so many ups and downs. Last of all, believe in the impossible, because the possibilities of what you can do are endless and achievable if you put your mind to it.

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