Is multiculturalism still a sensitive issue? Can we approach racism with humour? Repeatedly challenging their audience with “I think you think…”, Protein Dance present the stories of twelve individuals plucked from an array of different cultural backgrounds about living in Britain. Luca Silvestrini’s Border Tales at The Place is a colourful, humorous look at multiculturalism in modern Britain.

Luca Silvestrini's Protein Dance © Chris Nash
Luca Silvestrini's Protein Dance
© Chris Nash

Twelve unique voices issue forth from dark corners, toting questions of identity, freedom and what it is to feel alien – they are quoting familiar song lyrics from Radiohead to Michael Jackson to Britney Spears, but it’s what they’re saying that matters. A lone dancer sporting a curly mop of hair (Salah El Brogy) struggles against some invisible force in the centre of an open space crossed by a jagged electric blue line. His body is racked by contortions which throw him to the floor and away again while he remains intent, as if entranced. He runs on the spot, leaping high into the air – each bound more energetic and all-consuming than the last until it becomes comical.  In greeting his fellow dancer, Stuart Waters forces an awkward negotiation upon him – what begins as an oh-so-human confusion in attempting a mix of handshake, bow, and hug results in an aggressive, pacey duet in which the pair fight for command of the space.

Border Tales draws upon movement forms from many of the cultures represented by the performers, creating an eclectic, rich and varied movement language, which is shared by the whole cast. Several stunning sequences see the group shift seamlessly through various styles of dance associated with other cultures. Following a mention of Michael Flatley, seven dancers form a line, Riverdance style, but Irish dancing is soon merged with gestures from Indian, Middle Eastern and East Asian dance with references to T’ai Chi, all set within a grounded, dynamic sequence of contemporary dance. The original composition by Andy Pink performed on stage, primarily by Anthar Kharana, mixes musical styles from all corners of the earth, creating a truly unique and interesting musical landscape in which the dancers perform.

Eryck Brahmania and Yuyu Rau © Chris Nash
Eryck Brahmania and Yuyu Rau
© Chris Nash

There are seven main characters, each one telling their own story in a unique way. Each story is given space to unfold both textually and physically, so storytelling is matched with short solos. Eryck Brahmania and Kenny Wing Tao Ho each dance strong solos, making physical references to their ethnic roots (Indian and Philippino for Brahmania and Chinese for Wing Tao Ho) as they deliver monologues about their personal experiences of growing up in the UK as first-generation British citizens. Only one female performer (Yuyu Rau) is really given a voice, which focuses on patronising questions, presumptions that she is looking for a foreign husband, and preconceptions of Taiwanese–Chinese identity.

Much of the piece is accessed through Waters, a white Englishman who judges people based on racial stereotypes. He calls Egyptian dancer El Brogy a Pharoah, offers the Chilean a vino tinto, bets the Taiwanese girl she could murder a jasmine tea and won’t let her shake hands with anyone: “you can bow but don’t touch”. Waters is used in part to telling a story from a familiar perspective, and it is clear that this piece has been created from experiences within a British context and with a British audience in mind, but that’s not to say there aren’t stereotypes at work on the audience themselves: Waters solicits the public with talk of typical English dishes and pints of ale.

Kenny Wing Tao Ho © Chris Nash
Kenny Wing Tao Ho
© Chris Nash

The subject of multiculturalism is tackled with an infectious humour – if a little dubious when it comes to political correctness. Comedy is used to lighten the mood on a gritty subject, but – as pointed out by dancer Femi Oyewole post-show – there is a degree of truth in the jokes we tell about ourselves and others, particularly when it comes to our views of racial and cultural identity. The humour masks a thinly-veiled hostility that sometimes bubbles up when tensions rise. Stuart is the main catalyst for these moments, but the whole group get involved – particularly when they flee from El Brogy who they assume is wielding a bomb just because he looks Middle Eastern and carries a rucksack.

Perhaps the multiculturalism debate has been set aside in favour of the immigration debate, made pertinent by the economic crisis and the worry that ‘foreigners’ are taking jobs away from Britons. “You’re in my space” was set alongside “That’s my job” in Border Tales, reminding us that these negotiations are as much about space and identity as they are about jobs.

The combination of dance, music and text in Border Tales, each referencing various cultural forms and personal experience, makes it an enthralling piece to watch. Although different cultural styles are woven together and performed side-by-side, there is no sense that any form is being reproduced in a reductive or stereotyping manner. It is this delicate balance between respect for individual cultures and the light-hearted, humorous approach to the subject matter that makes Border Tales a brilliant production.