‘Why can’t you see me?!” cries the woman looking out into the audience, racked with frustration. “See. Me.” Joseph Toonga’s Born to Exist puts a spotlight on women unseen, specifically the women who raised him, having moved to east London from Cameroon as a child. Toonga started out in hip-hop, studied contemporary dance and has recently been working with the Royal Ballet, but his heart is in making eye-opening political work that speaks to real life. Following Born to Manifest and Born to Protest, two shows exploring black experience, this is the final part of the trilogy, subtitled The Woman I Know.
It doesn’t explicitly tell the stories of Toonga’s family but it seems a portrait of struggle, strength and survival. There are images of anger, violence, resilience and support. The choreography draws on hip-hop and particularly the power of krump, the women’s bodies driven by fevered contractions and gesticulations. At one point the dancers repeatedly raise their arms and you see the short distance between a fist raised in power and a palm raised in alarm, as if these two modes are in delicate balance.
Born to Exist is unafraid of confrontation, but the energy is just as charged when the three women on stage stand stock-still in silence as when they’re shouting expletives. Brazilian Amanda de Souza – a particularly sharp dancer – speaks volubly in Portuguese, enunciating each syllable but unable to make herself understood. Not just unseen, but unheard.
It’s a piece that can hold the attention with minimal means: no set, just an empty stage, lights, haze, subtle swells of music from Mikey J Asante. It starts with a single dancer, Aisha Webber, charismatic enough to spend the first five minutes with her back to us, slowly circling shoulders and hips. But it’s also a piece that perhaps struggles to make its larger point. There are very strong moments, but it loses traction – at one point the dancers talk among themselves in a way that says nothing to the audience. If Toonga really wants to celebrate and illuminate these women, it feels like we’re missing a final act.