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Choreographer Joseph Toonga: ‘Young black men need to see it’s okay to be vulnerable’

Joseph Toonga. Photo: The Other Richard

The co-founder of Just Us Dance Theatre, which creates hip hop and contemporary dance pieces and runs mentoring programmes for young people, tells Giverny Masso about the company’s latest work, which explores young, black British men’s mental health and cultural identity…


What was the inspiration behind Born to Manifest?
Personal experience and the media – seeing what it is to be a young, black guy in London and what people perceive it is. I thought: “Let me make a piece where you get to see our experiences and that actually we’re not just about sport and this and that.” We also have relationships that we have to cater to, we have that up-and-down struggle, we are fathers and we are brothers. The piece looks at the vulnerability side of it.

How did you make the piece?
I put an online questionnaire out and I spoke to other young black men I knew. I thought about which elements of the conversations to explore, and a lot of stuff was about vulnerability and stereotypes. We thought about what it means to be vulnerable when people think you’re this big guy, but you do have moments when you feel lonely.

What is your aim with this piece?
To make sure lots of young black men watch the show. It’s important for them to see it’s okay to be vulnerable and to want help and need help. I found it difficult to express myself when I was younger because it was never acceptable – people said things like: “You should keep quiet, man up and do your thing.” Alongside Born to Manifest, we’re doing a photography project. In each theatre the tour visits, people will be able to come a week in advance, walk into the building and see pictures of 30 young black men around the UK who are doing stuff in the arts. So it’s a positive face they get to associate with young black men, not just a certain stereotype.

What work outside of Just Us Dance has been particularly important in your career?
A lot. I always say to people that I’m living a surreal dream. I’ve been able to make a piece for Richard Alston Dance Company [1], which I know a lot of people don’t get an opportunity to do. I’ve also made work for the German National Youth Ballet and took part in Hofesh Shechter Company’s East Wall [2] project at the Tower of London, which was really surreal.

What else are you working on?
I’m setting up an artist-development programme called New and Notable, which I already run in the UK, in Rio de Janeiro at the end of November. It’s working with underground hip-hop artists to help them develop pieces for the theatre, giving them different tools. I also have a commission to make a new piece with a university in Singapore.


CV Joseph Toonga

Training: BTEC in dance at Lewisham College (2008-10);
BA in contemporary dance at London Contemporary Dance School (2010-13)
First professional role: Performing with Irven Lewis in Lincoln and Deptford Bridge (2007)
Agent: Emily Crouch


Born to Manifest [3] is touring in Autumn 2019 and Spring 2020. 

East Wall: Storm the Tower review at Tower of London – ‘an extraordinary event’ [2]