Joseph Toonga, Artistic Director of Just Us Dance Theatre, looks back on how his career as a choreographer, dancer and teacher has been shaped by the family he grew up with and the family he found.
My mum brought me up as a single parent and I’ve watched her overcome so many situations with independence and resilience since I was little. I really appreciate the sacrifices she made to help and serve others and I hope to be able to give back in the same way. What inspires me most of all about Mum is her pride in who she is – an African woman who came to the UK from Cameroon to create a better life for me and never gave up.
Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante
To see the number of people Ken and Mikey have nurtured in both the underground and theatre scenes as co-Artistic Directors of hip-hop dance production company Boy Blue is incredible. For me personally, seeing two black men from East London doing what Ken and Mikey were doing wasn’t just inspiring, it was tangible. I got to see their personalities and drive close-up. They are always open and stay humble no matter how successful they get. There is a sense of community – ‘us’ before ‘me’ – in everything that they do, and that’s reflected in their creative work and teaching. When you talk about Ken you have to talk about Mikey, and when you talk about Mikey you have to talk about Ken. You can’t have one without the other!
I have always been a big supporter of Vicki ever since we met at East London Dance Youth Company, where she was Youth Dance Practitioner. In many ways she reminds me of my mum in terms of her drive, passion, resilience and her refusal to compromise herself or her ambition. Now Artistic Director of Uchenna Dance, Vicki is a strong and creative businesswoman and one of few female leaders on the dance scene. She is always giving her time and passing on knowledge. I admire the way she finds a way to stay connected and support the younger generation.
There is a sense of community – ‘us’ before ‘me’ – in everything that they do, and that’s reflected in their creative work and teaching.
Rudeen, Ricardo Da Silva and I co-founded Just Us Dance Theatre together back in 2007. One of our main drivers was wanting to be positive role models and that’s still at the heart of the company’s ethos. Rudeen has always been like a big brother to me; he is one of my closest friends. He has always supported me and I know I can rely on him. His love – for his community and for others – and the sacrifice he has made for his family, while still remaining open, really inspires me. Watching him relocate to different areas around the UK, continuously developing his skill set, and providing for his family encourages me to strive higher. Our brotherhood gives me a mental haven from the dance scene that keeps me grounded.
Orin has been a part of my close network since I was in secondary school. As a music producer, singer, songwriter and event host, he has created music for me and his entrepreneurship inspires me very much. He is focused on self-investment, developing not only his craft but on his education too – he simultaneously studies at university and stays involved in the music and dance industry. Most of all, Orin is a person who is always willing to listen rather than interrupt. This is something I really appreciate about him. I am lucky he is a part of not only my personal network, but my professional network too.
My partner Emily is the queen of the balancing act, continuously managing family life and being a producer. Seeing this first-hand has shown me her resilience and drive. She is unapologetic about combining her work and motherhood and proud to make it one thing. I am constantly learning from her ability to problem solve. She can assess and talk through any situation in order to find a solution – it's a great attribute to have, not only for a producer but also for a mother.
Joseph Toonga’s new work 'Born To Manifest' is at The Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead on 8 November and The Place, London on 16 November www.justusdancetheatre.org