Born To Manifest

Tramway, Glasgow

Mary Brennan


At first, the lone figure standing upstage is shrouded in darkness. The gradual light reveals a man with his back to us – and though we can now discern his powerful build, he is anonymous, faceless to us.

His body, however, is talking rapidly and vividly through movement. His arms and hands are constantly on the defensive, warding off unseen threats and blows – the voices barking out “hands up” on Michael “Mikey J” Asante’s turbulent soundscore suggest police involvement, but the hostility could come from other fists, or even guns. Gangs? Vigilantes? Racists? The shadows seem full of menace...

For choreographer/dancer Joseph Toonga this visceral opening solo embodies the everyday experiences of young black British men he spoke to when researching Born To Manifest for his company, Just Us Dance Theatre.

When he turns towards us, as if to fight back, he is still constantly floored by stresses that undermine his attempts to stand tall.

A second dancer, Dani Harris Walters, enters and – although Toonga seems to reject all offers of assistance – there is a coming together of both men in a duet where Walters’ supportive actions allow Toonga to walk away, with dignity. And then, as it were, history repeats itself. Walters is soon flinching and beleaguered, trying to walk along a narrow beam of light as if it were a tightrope to mental and physical safety.

These are harsh images, and the fierce physicality of Toonga’s mix of movement styles – martial arts, hip-hop, contemporary – judder with brutality. But there is a striking, defiant provocation when both men mimic the gestures and vocalisings of apes – confronting racist stereotypes by connecting with emblematic African roots.

If pride in culture and identity is explored by Toonga and Walters in Born To Manifest, those themes are also to the fore in the short, sharp curtain-raiser performed by local young people who brought their own experiences of exclusion, aggro and vulnerability to Toonga’s workshops.

A manifestly rewarding performance all round.