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Joseph Toonga Born to Manifest
“Born to Manifest” by Joseph Toonga. Photograph courtesy of the artist

Bullet Points

Joseph Toonga's “Born to Manifest”

Performance
Just Us Dance Theatre: “Born to Manifest”
Place
Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland, February 7, 2020
Words
Lorna Irvine

Inspired by a real-life incident years ago, when police bust in on Joseph Toonga after a neighbour complained about noise, and he had to prove he was a dance student to them and had done nothing wrong, “Born to Manifest” is a brutal and brittle concrete slab of dance. Toonga’s choreography sits neatly alongside the cultural signifiers of black culture, where racially-motivated police brutality isn’t merely alluded to but represented in an unflinching way in hip-hop, film and literature. I’m reminded of tracks like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Ruthless Rap Assassins’ “Justice” and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” It’s dance that defies, dares you to look away, makes you complicit as a spectator in its discomfort.

Toonga, half-lit in casual dress, twitches as though coming to life. With arms flailing, and his large muscular body spread out, he is trying to take up more space, to make himself even bigger. To Mikey J’s bullet-fire, ricocheting beats, he puts his hands up in a gesture of surrender. He then assumes, variously, the ‘swag’ of a gangster shooting, a pugilist with fists clenched, a soldier, then an uncaged ape, beating his chest, thrashing and screaming. 

This is but one strand of the performance, though. Pushing against this stereotypical toughness is a fraternal kind of tenderness. Toonga is joined onstage by a stealthily creeping Dani Harris-Walters, also in casual clothes, who locks him into an embrace. The two men grapple for a beat or two, and there’s urban shaping, certainly, but a balletic kind of control emerges along with the machismo and posturing, a balletic spin and control to their dance dialogue. The popping and locking of breakdance becomes softer, and they are now moving as one, as light as whipped cream. They act as a support, a buffer, holding each other at the head and keeping themselves upright. Now they join hands and stretch out, pushing limbs to their limits. It’s clearly a riposte to ingrained expectations of masculinity, where complex feelings are repressed, not openly expressed. 

Joseph Toonga's Born to Manifest
“Born to Manifest” by Joseph Toonga. Photograph by Camila Greenwell

Acrobatic tumbles and rolls are augmented by Black Panther salutes—the single fist raised in protest. A single beam of light on the floor is evocative of a tightrope, precariously navigated to safety. Again, the two men grapple and earlier poses and motifs are repeated, more frenetically, now with added floor spins. Toonga bears the more slender Harris-Walters on his back, but the two now mirror each other, in a hypnotic, languid display of solidarity with a pace starting to ease and slow down. There is pride, but never a sense of narcissism: rather, it’s reclaiming strong physicality as something that isn’t antithetical to kindness and empathy. The two factors aren’t always mutually exclusive. It’s not cool to be bad-ass if it means toxic behaviour is the default setting; if being violent, cruel and arrogant is all that is valued. It is okay to be vulnerable, to be open about being scared, anxious, or humble—merely human. Resistance does not mean weakness.

So, too, ballet and urban can co-exist, Toonga is saying. There are many moments tonight where the audience is stunned into silence. I feel punch-drunk by the end, like I have witnessed a trauma, and in a sense I have. Toonga is creating something unsettling from a horrible incident. His work speaks to lived experience, asking larger questions about presumptions made about strong large black men, their voices, identities, and contributions to society. This is important and gripping.

Unrelenting, uncompromising and unique, Toonga pushes us down onto the concrete with him. But, as we know, from cracks in the concrete, plants and flowers grow, and hope will find its way.