Born to Manifest – its title implying a kind of destiny of strength, growth and power. In Joseph Toonga’s duet work prevalent are such ideas of growth and power from oppression. Finding strength in brotherhood and overcoming. The piece is powerful and brooding, simple in its staging and leaves you with the feeling that the two males, Toonga along with partner, Theophillus ‘Godson’ Oloyade, left nothing behind.
Opening to a single white backlight, and the image of Toonga with his back to the audience. The lighting leaving parts of his body in and out of shadow as he moves through gestural vignettes whilst maintaining his facing away from the audience. Rippling back and arm movements executed with a fluidity that almost dehumanises our perception of the human body. Raising his arms defeatedly over his head, which hints at a story of a black man being targeted by police because of the colour of his skin. Morphing into an ape-stance then shouting out frantically between movements. It all builds to a broken-down man. At which point, Oloyade enters, becoming a figure to physically lean on, to carry, to collapse and fall into, slowly until Toonga re-finds strength. It carries a father-son, or brotherly feel of support.
The two males synch into movement phrases which slice across the floor. Juicy, expansive movements punctuated by strong, sharp popping movements. A style which blends their training in hip-hop and Contemporary dance. The surprise of sharp movements against softer travelling movement is visually dynamic, and it feels as though in these unison sections, the two dancers come alive. The two strong male bodies complimenting each other in perfect unison. There is a transitional moment where Oloyade bursts into a silent krumping section, expressing a pent-up outburst of anger.
From there on, I felt the piece lacked imagination, as a similar pattern of movement and images unfold in a kind of reverse order. Toonga leaves the stage and Oloyade’s solo begins with him falling hard to the floor, continually rising and falling and gradually being worn down. With little noticeable difference from the first solo, he winds up on a spot downstage, distorting into ape impressions. Finally, Toonga re-joins for another duet of leaning for support, building back up, but in reversed roles. I felt that there could have been more distinction between the two solos and duets. Or else, if the piece was supposed to represent a cycle of shared experience, it could have been clearer.
As two black males on-stage, gesturing surrender, expressing anger and breakdown and morphing into the archetypal racist insult of apes in their solos in moments of vulnerability, the exploration of racial oppression is powerful. Showing the strength found in brotherhood and their willingness to open themselves to such vulnerability. Toonga’s use of symbolic imagery is well crafted.
Overall, a physically and emotionally strong duet, the dancers moving together in unison is a perfect combination. However, the piece seemed to plateau after the first two sections and became repetitive towards the end.
Reviewed at The Lowry on 13th of February