An alumnus of The London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS), based at The Place, Toonga was The Royal Ballet's emerging choreographer for 2021, and his work was presented at the ROH Linbury Theatre as part of the Spring Draft Works programme.
Now Toonga has returned to his alma mater with Born to Exist: The Woman I Know, the third work of his trilogy Hip Hop Dance.
The work has its roots in Toonga’s upbringing solely by black women – his mother and aunts – and his direct experience of their strength and resilience.
Three women dance Born to Exist and bring to the stage a power that’s sometimes daunting but never less than engaging. The work starts in silence with one woman, Aisha Webber, centre stage under a milky spotlight, with her naked back, simultaneously vulnerable and strong, to the audience.
She stands still for what feels like an infinity, but is, in fact, an assertion of power, as if to say, 'this is my show, I’ll start when I’m good and ready'. When she does start, her first movements are slow: knees bent, torso contractions with deep release accompanied by breath exhalations.
In a long solo, her movements become deeper, more frenzied. She raises her arms to heaven, in what could be a prayer or a sign of despair. She turns around, faces the audience, and enacts boxing punches. Hers is life as a battle, one she intends to overcome.
Michael ‘Mikey’ J’Asante’s score has the unnerving dissonant power of industrial machinery.
Webber is then joined by Amanda de Souza and Paris Crossley.
Joseph Toonga, Born to Exist: The Woman I Know, Dancers: Aisha Webber, Amanda de Souza and Paris Crossley. Photo: Karin Jonker
As the lights subtly change (sympathetic lighting design by Simisola Majekodunmi), the three women dance together, earthed, restless, their limbs taut with energy, the syncopated movements of hip-hop denoting life as continuous struggle, with hands pushing at invisible walls a recurring gesture. The sheer energy they exude never falters.
Sometimes they work together, other times they challenge each other; and then they challenge the audience, with Webber coming downstage to demand: 'see me!'
Then comes perhaps the most questionable decision (dramaturgy by Peggy Olislaegers): the Brazilian dancer Amanda de Souza addresses the audience in a long, increasingly outraged, rant in Portuguese.
Joseph Toonga, Born to Exist: The Woman I Know. Dancer: Amanda de Souza. Photo: Karin Jonker
Now, Portuguese is my native language, so I was able to follow her drift: a black woman sick and tired of continued slights and oppression, appropriating the designation ‘black’ as a proud identity, not an insult, and ending in an enraged sequence of shrieks and ululations.
Perhaps the thought was that the words didn’t matter that much, since her rage and trauma came across all too clearly, but I wonder how distracting not being able to follow what was, after all, a very long, climatic sequence will have been.
That said, Born to Exist: The Woman I Know shows a strong, creative way of using dance language to represent an underrepresented group in all its human complexity and richness.
|What||Joseph Toonga, Born to Exist: The Woman I Know review|
|Where||The Place, 17 Duke's Road, London, WC1H 9PY | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Euston (underground)|
25 Oct 22 – 26 Oct 22, 19:30 Dur.: 60 mins no interval
|Price||£18 (concessions £14)|
|Website||Click here to book|