Just Us Dance presents is a raw and powerful hip hop response to Joseph Toonga’s 2019 work Born to Manifest. The performers, each between 16 to 23 years old, double as mentees of Let’s Shine, a six-month artistic development programme that is part of the Just Dance Theatre creative cycle. Through their experiences as young black British men, the performers let us in on an intimate journey, challenging the audience through a powerful performance that tugs at the heartstrings.
Though the performance is directed by Joseph Toonga, this response to his own work feels deeply personal. The very experience of entering the theatre is like entering someone’s room - an almost voyeuristic experience into the intimate life experiences of the sole performer, a single spotlight on him. When he turns around and stares the audience down, no one is left unseen. This mirrors the start of Born to Manifest, though the Let’s Shine mentees’ version is not a duet, rather, an explosive celebration of community and brotherhood - the good and the bad.
After the initial performer's vignettes of pain and violence, a raw display to no music, the stage explodes with the loud shouts of the eight other young men joining this lone portrait. Together, they complicate the dynamics of race, youth, prejudice and fellowship. Accompanied by music, they come together, break away, fight and challenge one another, creating a network of shared experiences to which, we, the audience, are privy. They are defiant and unapologetic in reclaiming their identity; they move swiftly around one another and build a human pyramid in an escalation of emotion that is somewhat visually cluttered and, at times, confusing. Their movements are soft and harsh, synchronised and individualistic, and they often return to scenes of breaking apart and coming back together.
They close the number by mock-shooting the audience, creating an uneasy and painfully charged atmosphere. For almost an hour they have shown us lived complexities of their respective journeys, the painful stereotypes and the oppression. They now stand together, facing those watching them, proud. We can only imagine what has brought them here, but their fellowship is certainly tangible beyond the performance.
The simplicity of the set and costume design emphasises the depth of each performance, lending both an individual and universal quality to their choreography. Music contributes to this dual atmosphere as silent sequences reflect more emotional expression, while energetic hip hop becomes the soundtrack of the more communal sequences and confrontations.
From beginning to end, Just Us Dance presents is an incredible enterprise: the boundlessly energetic performances given by the nine young men of the Let’s Shine mentorship programme reflect the intensity of their individual lived experiences. They come together in an emotional, raw performance that is occasionally overcrowded, but is always thought-provoking and complex.