REVIEW | ‘A NIGHT OF HIP HOP THEATRE’ WITH JUST US APPRENTICESHIP COMPANY

Photo Cred­it: Elli­ott Banks

Cap­tiv­at­ing, relent­less, and ener­gising through­out, Just Us Appren­tice­ship Com­pany deliv­ers an awe-inspir­ing per­form­ance at The Place.

Cur­ated by Joseph Toonga, the artist­ic dir­ect­or of Just Us Dance Theatre, the even­ing bill show­cases works from renowned cho­reo­graph­ers Bruno Duarte, Kloe Dean, and Simeon Camp­bell, along­side an excerpt from the company’s rep­er­toire.

Each piece is a test­a­ment to the ver­sat­il­ity and emo­tion­al depth of hip hop dance theatre, but the stars are the five female mem­bers of the appren­tice­ship com­pany — Ceara Bat­son, Shania Bar­ret-McGrath, Jada Nich­ols, Annija Raibekaze, and Prin­cess Van-Der-Larbi.

We first see their bril­liance in Duarte’s Rito, a piece draw­ing from the choreographer’s unique Krump style and the Capoeira mar­tial art. The piece starts loud and lively. Emu­lat­ing the raw nature of Krump cyphers, the dan­cers bound around the stage in a cluster, with arm throws, buck hops, and capoeira kicks break­ing through moments of intric­ate move­ment. The thump­ing, base heavy music com­posed by Duarte under­scores these moments, where one dan­cer intro­duces a groove for the oth­ers to match in call and response.

There’s an espe­cially incred­ible recur­ring motif that draws aud­ible reac­tions from the audi­ence. The dan­cers con­tinu­ously per­form kick ups (also known as nip ups) that fall back into the ground, cre­at­ing a rip­pling full body wave that repeats over and over; in odd pat­terns, in sync, and in can­on at dif­fer­ent parts of the work. It’s an impress­ive and phys­ic­al feat.

Next in the bill is the excerpt of Toonga’s Born To Protest, which picks up where Duarte left off. The party vibe con­tin­ues to an infec­tious beat com­posed by Michal ‘Mikey J’ Ansate, and the dan­cers draw us in with afro dance grooves, play­ful facial expres­sions, and dizzy­ing house steps (I’ve nev­er seen a simple farm­er step cov­er so much ground!). But soon, the cast are abruptly inter­rup­ted by a harsh light upstage left beam­ing from a low angle across the stage. The music cuts off and the dan­cers sharply raise their hands up as if held at gun­point. The pin drops.

What fol­lows is a series of Toonga’s unique Krump and con­tem­por­ary vocab­u­lary done in silence, punc­tu­at­ing the frus­tra­tion felt with breath and voice shout­ing “can’t you see us?”. By cre­at­ing a false sense of secur­ity and strip­ping it away at a giv­en notice, it can be read as Toonga dir­ect­ing our atten­tion to the lived exper­i­ence of those liv­ing under an oppress­ive state. That to live and exper­i­ence joy in com­munity can be unjustly rep­rim­anded by a poli­cing state.

Yet through the struggle (Nich­ols at one point is wrestled by the oth­ers as she attempts to break from restraint), the cast build them­selves up by gal­van­ising energy (and using a raised fist motif) to protest the injustice. There is an issue of length as the same mono­logue is repeated by Nich­ols and Bat­son to identic­al effect, but the cast ulti­mately nav­ig­ates the emotive shift of the work with skill. I’m espe­cially in awe of their col­lect­ive abil­ity to dance to exhaus­tion and use that fatigue as a tool to rep­res­ent the tir­ing fight against injustice.

Photo Cred­it: Elli­ott Banks

Simeon Campbell’s Vice came next after an inter­val, telling a loose nar­rat­ive around one person’s exper­i­ence of addic­tion. The ori­gin­al cho­reo­graphy was cre­ated for Birdgang dance com­pany and centred a male char­ac­ter. In this instance, Bar­ret-McGrath takes on the lead role. In the post-show Q&A, she describes this piece as a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge in its dra­mat­ic nar­rat­ive approach, requir­ing act­ing skills in show­ing nuanced emo­tions non-verbally through­out.

Yet Barret-McGrath’s por­tray­al is fault­less. From the lit­er­al ges­tures of drug use to alco­hol abuse, she does well to execute the cho­reo­graphy she’s giv­en. A move­ment sec­tion done on a chair and desk is par­tic­u­larly mem­or­able with a dazed expres­sion and dart­ing eyes show­ing con­fu­sion. She hits music­al cues with placed isol­a­tions, pops, and tuts, before an intric­ate wave beats through her whole body.

Last in the lineup is Pro­cess by Kloe Dean, which shifts the sin­gu­lar focus back to the col­lect­ive. It’s refresh­ing to see how the dan­cers adapt to and reflect each choreographer’s dis­tinct style, and it’s no dif­fer­ent in Dean’s case. Those famil­i­ar with her grooves, intric­ate foot­work, and dynam­ic mov­ing form­a­tions would feel at home watch­ing this work.

Josh Tomalin’s light­ing does won­ders too. A standout moment being a rect­an­gu­lar beam down­stage leav­ing the rest of the stage pitch black. The dan­cers fall into the light one after the oth­er and quickly dart back into the dark, cre­at­ing a simple yet mes­mer­ising effect. I’m espe­cially drawn to Raibekaze’s punc­tu­ated pops into seam­less flows, and Van-Der-Labi’s flu­id move­ments that breathe an ease into the work and evening’s over­all hard and hype energy.

The level of phys­ic­al­ity and skill on dis­play by these emer­ging tal­ents can­not be under­stan­ded. As a com­pany of only 12 weeks, they show­case an unques­tion­able abil­ity, iden­tity, and voice as a col­lect­ive. We’re even treated to their wis­dom in the Q&A: to push bey­ond com­fort zones, reima­gine our lim­its, and dare to dream the impossible.

Joseph Toonga’s pro­gramme under­scores Just Us Dance Theatre’s com­mit­ment to nur­tur­ing young tal­ent and push­ing the bound­ar­ies of hip hop dance theatre. And the res­ult is an even­ing of artic­u­late, fiery, and ener­get­ic dance, prom­ising a bright future for the UK’s hip hop dance theatre scene.

A Night of Hip Hop Theatre with Just Us Appren­tice­ship Com­pany con­tin­ues its tour to Con­naught Theatre, Wor­th­ing on May 21.

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Isaac Ouro-Gnao

Isaac Ouro-Gnao

Isaac Ouro-Gnao is a Togolese-Brit­ish mul­tidiscip­lin­ary artist, somat­ic trauma ther­ap­ist, men­tal health schol­ar-act­iv­ist, and freel­ance journ­al­ist.

About Isaac Ouro-Gnao

Isaac Ouro-Gnao
Isaac Ouro-Gnao is a Togolese-British multidisciplinary artist, somatic trauma therapist, mental health scholar-activist, and freelance journalist.