The Place is packed full of enthusiastic students this Saturday night, for Just Us Dance Theatre’s Born to Manifest. The piece was created by Joseph Toonga who founded the company in 2007 and features him and Theophillus ‘Godson’ Oloyade. It’s a powerful, concentrated piece where Toonga explores his and other men’s experiences and reflects on what it’s like to be a black man in Britain today. It’s a maelstrom of different emotions, by turns embattled and struggling, sometimes combative and at others consoling and comforting, as the dancers draw strength from each other.
It takes nerve to begin the piece with a long solo in the gloom with your back to the audience. Toonga remains rooted to the spot in silence. Forces ripple through him, twisting and bending his ultra-pliable spine, but it’s as if he’s trapped by powers that are hard to overcome. The silence is broken dramatically by three loud bangs – like gunshots. The soundtrack is layered with snatched voices here, so that you can just catch “hands up”, “no, please”. Now he can face us but the movement is fraught. He is a beleaguered figure, collapsing to the ground, struggling but not giving up. He might be caught in a searchlight, hands up, intimidated.
A second dancer enters and the mood shifts in the subsequent duet. He supports his partner: he lifts his companion’s head up, raises his arm. It could have been a fallen soldier being carried from the battlefield. They grapple with each other, as if help is not immediately welcome, but there is gentleness and compassion here too. They share their weight. Bodies are lifted up onto the shoulders. Toonga has an eclectic range of influences: he takes hip hop and adds to it elements of other styles, including contemporary and martial arts, weaving something very disciplined and coherent out of the mix. There’s a lot of use of the floor, rolling on it only to leap up immediately, gravity another thing to be defied.
The second dancer now gets his solo. Again, voices manifest on the soundtrack: you can just discern cries of “put your hands up” and “armed police”. He is tormented, desperate. As the solo develops, the emphasis seems to shift to internal mental troubles rather than external threats. He walks a narrow beam of light, balancing on it like a tightrope but then it disappears and he collapses. His movement becomes more frenetic: he is fighting enemies he can’t see, and he can’t win.
There’s a more complex duet in the concluding segment. There are elements here which are more combative and aggressive with some boxing moves thrown in. There’s a hint of competition between them in the dives to the floor. But this is interwoven with more supportive and consoling gestures. There are moments of despair, when a body is cradled as if by a mourner. But they hold each other up, and finally hug. But it’s not clear if the protagonists can truly be reconciled or if friendships are strong enough to protect against external forces. The odds look to be against it.
Born to Manifest has benefited from notable collaborators. Toonga worked with the dramaturge Peggy Olislaegers, and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante, co-artistic director of Boy Blue, created a score which underpins the action effectively. The production is tight and well-honed, running at less than an hour, and seems to pass even faster. This is a thoughtful and nuanced depiction of how complex and fraught identity can be in Britain today, put across with meaty, muscular force by two charismatic performers.
Toonga is keen to develop young artists under Just Us’s Lets Shine mentorship programme. Born to Manifest was preceded by a short performance by eight students from this programme, full of fizzing energy and youthful vigour. The images of guns and hostility in it are bleak, yet the performance still had a lively optimism. In Born to Manifest, we see how painful experience wears that down. It’s a troubled and troubling experience.