A night with the Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co

Livestream from DanceEast, Ipswich
April 16, 2021

David Mead

This first performance by the Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co was the culmination of a three-month pilot scheme by Joseph Toonga, artistic director of Just Us Dance Theatre. Inspired by Hamburg’s Bundesjugendballett, he wanted to create a similar ensemble for hip hop performers in the UK that would support their development and transition to professional companies or a career as an independent artist.

He also felt that those from lower economic backgrounds are often excluded from quality artistic opportunities, even more so if from a black or ethnic minority group too. “I saw a chance for a new route for dancers to access and create an environment where they can feel a sense of stability, and where they can take risks and experience being a freelancer whilst working with world-class teachers and practitioners,” he says.

For the evening, the five young dancers of the company, aged 17-24, danced a mixed bill of largely new works. The streaming scores all round. It lets us see what fine dancers Penelope Klamert, Dilyon Graham, Leroy Kanyowa, Cache Thake and Aisha Webber (make a note of the names – you will hear them again, I guarantee) are. It also shows the breadth of what hip hop can be, each piece cleverly structured to allow each dancer to be seen as an individual. Fine camerawork that frequently takes the viewer to the heart of the action helps enormously.

Just Us Hip Hop Apprenctice Co in Love songs repurposed by Shannelle ‘Tali’ FergusStill from film
Just Us Hip Hop Apprenctice Co in Love songs repurposed by Shannelle ‘Tali’ Fergus
Still from film

The title of Til Enda by Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy of Boy Blue comes from ‘until the end’ and running on the spot, in various forms, is a recurring feature. The dance is sharp and precise. The mood and lighting are dark. There’s a lot to take in but pervading everything is an ever-present sense of struggle and frustration that at times leads to fighting back. Even the softer, quieter moments come with power. The music, Til Enda by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds adds to the mood with its techno rhythms mixed with what could almost be a folk lament. A second short piece by Sandy, Collabo, is danced later.

Dad’s Skin is a film by Botis Seva, directed and edited by Ben Williams. It’s essentially a series of urgent visuals including a crown, an occult-like dog mask, boxing gloves, a blooded face, and most disturbing of all, a rope. Thoughtful text suggests these are all representations of thoughts and images in heads, about which most people will remain silent however much they bother them.

Introducing her Love songs repurposed, choreographer Shannelle ‘Tali’ Fergus observes that songs often have very personal memories and a particular time attached. Even love songs can become battle cries she says. That all very quickly becomes evident in dance that has great depth, especially in the section to the deeply melancholic ‘Fall into you’ by Rosehardt, overtly a love song but with references to manipulation, burden and ultimate freedom. It’s at its best in the slower sections, even pauses or stillnesses, when the simple act of staring out draws you in.

The cleverly assembled programme allows us to see many sides of the dancers’ talents. The first half of Process of Elevation by Shawn Aimey calls for much softer movement as they explore ideas of weightlessness. The floating movement is occasionally interrupted by sudden falls as though someone turned gravity back on for a split second. The piece is at its best in the darker lit moments that suggest it’s all taking place in a void.

The programme wounds off with Toonga’s It’s Us!! Not ‘I’, which considers society and where it’s at right now. An opening solo by Webber is beautifully smooth and sinuous but it’s not long before angry frustrations bubble to the surface as she hits the barriers that hem her in. Based on six stereotypical images of minorities there are also references to gun and knife crime. But there’s also recognition of family and support. One section is backed by a stream of text that constantly asks ‘why?’ and does start to make you think about background and context.

The programme gives Toonga’s project a strong start. The dancers’ time with the Just Us Apprentice Co is about much more than performance, however. Alongside daily class (in a variety of disciplines) and performance are sessions on managing a self-employed career, teaching opportunities, lesson planning and much more. The dancers also receive a weekly salary during their time with the company. It’s a project that deserves to succed.

The first full year of the Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co. will run from November 2021 with a national tour planned for spring 2022.