It’s four years since Luca Silvestrini first presented Border Tales on his Protein company. He is not generally inclined to revisit works, moving from project to project in a seamless vein of creative dance theatre that uses spoken text (including humour) and movement to pick the bones of a big issue of the day (a fixation with personal appearance in Dear Body, food fashion in May Contain Food and online life in LOL). But, in some senses Border Tales was ahead of its time, especially pre-Brexit, and so much has changed since 2013 that this is a timely revival.

© Jane Hobson
© Jane Hobson

Contrary to a natural expectation, the “Border” in these “Tales” is not a physical boundary between nations, despite the presence – in the opening scene – of a meandering blue line on the dance floor, as if a border on a map. Instead, it represents the complex spaces between people who come from different places. As such, it exposes the awkwardness inherent in any multicultural society in a complex web of unresolved issues that inevitably militate against the achievement of a true melting pot.

It could be the thesis for a hard-hitting polemic but, instead, Silvestrini – true to his style – makes it a softer, comedic work, which nonetheless packs a mighty punch. In Border Tales, multiculturalism is viewed from both ends of the telescope, through the perspective of those whose cultures are misunderstood and that of those who abuse through misunderstandings (even if that was never the intention; an important subliminal theme).

By linking the narrative to the cultural background of each cast member, Silvestrini creates a different variation each time a performer changes. Three of the seven were different to the last time that I saw the show, and the text was altered to suit; although the central pretext remained the same. Two young men – one of Irish descent (Stephen Moynihan) and the other, English (Andrew Gardiner) – have been friends since youth, their relationship described in a forceful duet that sequences several consecutive requirements of mutual partnering support. Although Steve and Andy (all characters keep the performers’ given names) have grown-up together, their backgrounds are still essentially separated by the Irish Sea in issues that are addressed through a certain “matey” humour.    

Andy’s awkwardness at dealing with people of different cultures is brought into stark reality when greeting the other performers, as they arrive at a party. He intends to be welcoming, not offensive, but in his eagerness to be the perfect host he guesses at each guest’s drink simply based on how they look (by confusing Taiwan with Thailand, he displays no sensitivity towards nationality); worse still, he makes assumptions about their culture, notably preventing anyone from shaking Yuyu Rau’s hand “because they don’t like to be touched”!     

© Jane Hobson
© Jane Hobson
In some senses, and rightly, Silvestrini also presents Andy as a victim, through his slow descent into a mental turmoil of his own making, trying – but brutally failing – in what were good intentions of welcoming people to his home (at first, the setting made me feel that he was welcoming people to a class in a local centre).   

The six other performers have the solo opportunity of a danced monologue to explain their personal experiences of cultural misunderstanding, all of which are well-observed, fascinating capsules of tanztheater performance. Kenny Wing Tao Ho impresses as a fluid, charismatic dancer who is equally comfortable in delivering text with a fluent force. Eryck Brahmania (a member of the original cast) returned at the last moment to replace Salah El Brogy (who sustained an injury, earlier in the week) and gave a strong and vital performance as a Muslim guest: the scene where all the others recoil in horror when he arrives with a backpack has such a dreadful ring of truth to it. And Temitope Ajose-Cutting is also outstanding as a Nigerian woman, perpetually mistaken for Jamaican: her “girlfriend” solo, full of West Indian and African American clichés in both spoken text and movement, is a tour de force of physical humour.

But, the accolade for the most outstanding member of this cast must go to Anthar Kharana, a one-man orchestra who plays several instruments and vocalises in many styles, also bringing a Colombian/Hispanic/Latino aspect to the multicultural, theatrical mix in his versatile performance. The musical score by Andy Pink (and Karantha) and Jackie Shemesh’s lighting are strong elements.

London has a strong claim to be the most multicultural city on earth but it is also the capital of a “Brexit” country; a dichotomy that lies at the heart of this revival. Having the breadth of understanding to navigate through a multicultural society without dropping bricks of insensitivity is not easy, even if most of us try a little harder than Andy. Making this issue into a work that entertains without diluting the central message, nor becoming a polemical treatise, is a delicate balance. Silvestrini and his Protein team have succeeded in doing so through a compelling and absorbing 75 minutes of excellent dance theatre.