Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co
A Night with Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co.
Livestreamed from DanceEast 16 April 2021, repeated on YouTube 19-23 April.
Interview with Joseph Toonga about the new Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co.
The enterprising Joseph Toonga, Artistic Director of Just Us Dance Theatre, has not just created an apprentice company of five young dancers, he has also commissioned other choreographers to make new short works for them in a programme livestreamed from the stage at DanceEast in Ipswich. In our current pandemic conditions that’s quite an achievement.
The Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co dancers, aged between 17 and 24, have been training for 14 weeks, and have been paid for their work (not so usual in an apprentice company), and the scheme represents a chance for them not just to train and perform but also to be mentored in the realities of a freelance dance career. The performers move together as a coherent group, while still retaining distinct personalities, and they handle the different styles of the choreographers confidently. They are an engaging bunch: at one point well into the programme one of them started to smile, and it just spread around the group, an infectious joy in just being there dancing on stage, and I felt myself grinning in response.
The choreographers get a chance to speak about their works, and there are also short interviews with the five performers (Penelope Klamert, Dilyon Graham, Leroy Kanyowa, Cache Thake and Aisha Webber). It’s irritating that the questions from the off-screen interviewer are mostly inaudible. Although it’s always interesting to hear from the creators of a work, it seemed on the live stream that the talk occupied more of the running time than the actual dancing. Each work featured all five dancers, some just five or less than ten minutes in duration. The concluding piece from Toonga himself was a more substantial fifteen minutes or so. Originally shown live, it is repeated on YouTube and so it’s possible catch up or take a second look, and see what perceptions change.
First up is Til Enda choreographed by Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy, co-founder and co-artistic director of Boy Blue, the only choreographer not to be interviewed. It’s all sharp angles, fast and energetic, described by one of the dancers as “getting ready for war” and they do look like they are psyching themselves up for battle. They are intense, on a mission, burning with youthful energy. The second piece, Love songs repurposed from Shannelle ‘Tali’ Fergus is a good contrast. The music here is four gentle and lyrical love songs. The soft curling arms are very different from the sharpness and attack of the first piece. There’s a relaxed and casual looseness to the movement. The most memorable image is of all five lying curled up on the floor as spotlights sweep the stage. It’s as if none of them can detach themselves from the floor, they push upwards but keep falling back. When they do finally get to their feet they look lost and isolated under the lights.
Shawn Aimey contributes The Process of Elevation. I was pleased to see after the black and grey outfits of the first two pieces a welcome blast of colour in the bright red tops. There’s two parts to the work. In the first the performers might be moving underwater or be spacemen: there’s a floating quality to it, as if gravity is temporarily modified. The second part gives us more obvious virtuosity. The camera begins to get restless and moves in among the dancers as if you are on stage with them. The camera movement becomes even more pronounced in Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy’s Collabo, revolving around the dancers and turning them upside down: this was something that was interesting on the first viewing but became distracting when seen several more times.
Joseph Toonga’s It’s Us!! Not ‘I’ was the final piece. It was the most substantial, and definitely repaid a second viewing. It begins in silence as a woman twists and turns in an increasingly anguished and tormented solo, until she finally yells in anger or frustration. There are glimpsed vignettes of situations. On the soundtrack we can hear “Why have you been stopped and searched” fading away to just “why….why…”. A man puts his hands on his head as guns are aimed. There is desperation, anguish, but there is also bonding and support. There is much more contact here between bodies than in any other piece on the bill. Bodies are cradled, lifted, locked together. At the heart of it was a duet for the solo woman and a man, full of shifting emotions, exasperated, annoyed, tender, bickering. She tries again and again to wrap her arms around him from behind and pull him away from some imagined danger or trouble. It’s this man who we are left with, in another silent flailing solo that ends the work, flinging himself to the floor, yelling and finally laughing bitterly. We see only part of this couple’s story but so much more is implied – there’s a lot packed into this short piece
The programme also included a short film from Botis Seva, DAD’S SKIN. Oddly enough when there was so much other introductory material, there was nothing about this: it just appeared rather disconcertingly without any introduction or credits. And it didn’t involve the Apprentice Co dancers. It was a powerful set of hallucinatory images concentrating on just the upper torso and head of a man: a crown, rope, a gun, the cubist style head of a horse and a noose flashed by in ever more threatening succession. It was striking, and Seva is always up to something interesting but it wasn’t clear why this was being featured in the apprentices’ programme.
Putting together a new company and getting new work made for it is commendably ambitious at the best of times. Toonga and his collaborators can feel proud, as can the dancers: they were articulate, enthusiastic, committed and hard working. There are plans for a full year for the Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co from November 2021, and they hope to tour in 2022. (And we wish them most well. Ed)