Meet Joseph Toonga, the dancer who is bringing new audiences to the world of ballet

Joseph Toonga

The final instalment of Joseph Toonga’s nationally acclaimed hip hip dance trilogy, Born To Exist is a call for social change. It charts the untold, underrepresented journeys of individuals of ethnic minorities, using movement as a means to explore humanity in all its ugliness, beauty, contradictions and complexity.

It is a response to Joseph’s personal experience of being solely brought up by black women. His mum and Aunties brought him to the UK 25 years ago and he wants to bring their story of immigration to the forefront. It is a journey from being a young boy to becoming a man, and shows his appreciation of the strong, resilient, and self-sacrificing females who brought him up, as well as the collective lived experiences of the female cast.

Joseph’s process uses his choreographic style as a conduit for trauma, which enters a through a vacuum to become movement that is shared with audiences.

Originally from Cameroon, Joseph Toonga was raised in East London. He is currently Emerging Choreographer In Residence with The Royal Ballet. Parts one and two of the trilogy, ‘Born to Protest’ and ‘Born To Manifest’ were performed at the Linbury last year.

Joseph hopes to break traditional stereotypes associated with ballet. Being from a non-traditional dance background he said he was surprised to get given the opportunity at the world-famous ballet company.

As well as extensive teaching and independent commissions, Joseph runs his dance company, Just Us Dance Theatre, a collective founded 2007.

Each year, Just Us Dance Theatre nurtures young artists on a local and international scale through three different artistic development programmes. Beneficiaries of these programmes get access to mentors and opportunities that help them hone their craft. Joseph recalls, “When I was younger, people gave me opportunities to make mistakes, and I think it’s about having the understanding that not everyone comes from a recognised dance background. I always want to understand that all people’s journeys are different: some people require financial help, some people require artistic help. Others may just require having someone who can see them at their level.”

As part of his mission to expand access to the arts, Joseph also heavily considers the social value of his work. One way he does this is by involving the community in his initial creative process through participatory research methods such as interviews. ‘Having an audience group in those early stages, made up of people outside the arts, helps. They respond in the most natural, blunt way. It helps me simplify and find substance in things.’

For ‘Born To Exist’, Joseph sent out questionnaires and had conversations with a wide range of Black women. Using those responses, the group ‘started to ask more questions of ourselves to find commonality: what kind of body language should we explore to show this feeling? What was the most prevalent theme? What was the main human emotion that people were expressing?’

Joseph says, “To me, that’s what dance is meant to be. It’s meant to innovate and inspire, and has a power beyond itself, which it should be proud to showcase.”

Born to Exist will be touring from 11 February – 25 March at the following venues:

  • Riley Theatre, Leeds Sat 11 February
  • Minerva Studio, Chichester Fri 24 February
  • Lancaster Arts Wed 1 March
  • The Barbican, Plymouth Fri 3 March
  • Pavilion Dance South West Sat 4 March
  • Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House Wed 8 March
  • Cornerstone, Didcot Sat 11 March
  • Walsall Arena Thur 23 March
  • Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury Sat 25 March

For more information about Joseph’s work visit