Just Us Dance Theatre Platform

The Place, London
September 24, 2016

Róisín O’Brien

The Just Us Dance Theatre Platform assuredly delivered an evening of new hip-hop and contemporary dance from both the Just Us Dance Theatre group and other artists. The evening’s eight pieces were bravely probing and unashamedly technique-intensive, all delivering a full and resonating emotional experience for the audience.

The opening Scratch the Surface, from the Just Us Dance Theatre’s mentorship programme for young people, ticks agitatedly away as the dancers urgently push and grab each other, locking and breaking through the dimly lit space. Their passion and skill is allowed to come through in Lee Griffiths’ choreography, which does not trivialise the young performers through simplistic themes or gimmicky tricks.

The evening contained two duets. It’s Between Us features artistic director Joseph Toonga and artist Dickson Mbi. The lighting flickers, cold, on the two identically dressed dancers, who reflect, support, and contrast each other. With such a sense of (a)symmetry, their locking gives the piece a pleasingly jarring sense of misplaced perception, of something dodging on the edge of vision.

Joseph Toonga of Just Us Dance TheatrePhoto courtesy Joseph Toonga/Just Us
Joseph Toonga of Just Us Dance Theatre
Photo courtesy Joseph Toonga/Just Us

It’s OK…, co-choreographed by Toonga and Botis Seva, and performed by Seva and Ricardo Da Silva, is a more contained duet that nonetheless erupts at certain moments, sketching our ways of dealing with our innermost thoughts. The heart-tugging accompaniment by Max Richter is in many ways unneeded.

While the platform has a mostly male cast, two works have an emphasis on femininity. A Burned Scorpion pits two doll-like women against a shabbily dressed man in a hypnotic chase that is skilful if not particularly driven in narrative structure. A work in progress, The Thin Line, touches upon perceptions of feminine beauty and relationships defined by difference, with imagery that could prove strong when developed further.

An absolute stand-out is Dickson Mbi’s Duende. To define it as a ‘work’, limited by a fixed start and end point, almost does an injustice to its self-contained world. Circular patches of the stage are alternately illuminated, and a crouched creature flits in and out, dragging its arms behind him. Mbi’s mastering of his craft is undeniable; he moves seamlessly in and out of the floor, alternating between architecturally sculpted poses and racked, strained expressions. Duende is a solo of exceptional clarity and commitment.

Undoubtedly the most deftly choreographed is the final piece, Moments, Past. Recreated by Toonga, it is a beautiful exploration of the perceived boundaries of hip-hop. The movements and spatial patternings are flowing and smooth, while still skilfully interweaved with shunts, capoeira influences, and sharper poses. The frequent use of an elongated back bend that extends gracefully into the arms remains warmly imprinted in the mind after the performance.

A final mention must, however, go to Boy Blue Entertainment’s NOIR. If I have one main criticism of the evening, it would be its placement in the middle rather than at the end of the programme. While ending with Moments, Past provides a rounded ending to things, NOIR is an angry, raw, politically relevant piece that leaves you shaken and vulnerable. Leaving the theatre in this state would be unpleasant, but crucial.

NOIR opens with whimpering, clawing, and panting. The lights slowly rise on a stage filled with black men suffering. The piece rapidly builds in pace: the group solidify and disperse, work together or fight each other. There is compulsion, there are rules, there is choking, there is death. The images keep building, the struggle keeps intensifying, the thuds of the dancers feet shake the auditorium seats. At the end, they pull together, bar one man who hangs inert on another’s shoulders, and raise their fists.

Just Us Dance Theatre prove that dance can be powerfully emotional, that it can attack and provoke, and that it does not only reside in conceptual exercises or over-practiced, routine steps. An evening of talent and artistic rigour that delivers some astounding performances.