Music, Dance and Narrative Reveal a Tapestry of Multicultural Britain

The seven artists of Protein line up at the front of the stage, staring at the audience. There are a few moments of silence, then the undulating voice of Anthar Kharana echoes, and the show starts.

Border Tales groups together fears, stereotypes, identities, struggles, and the vibrancy of today’s multicultural community in London, weaved in a brilliant choreographed dance, music and spoken narrative. The fluid movements and the everyday-inspired words form a unique dialogue, sprinkled with humour and interactions with the audience.

Everything is accompanied by sounds. Part of the music is pre-recorded, but a lot is done live by Kharana: from strings, to percussion, to modelling his voice.

Border Tales comes from the mind of a “foreigner”. It is delivered by other “foreigners”. It is seen by an audience of “foreigners” - how many in the seats could truthfully declare themselves true British natives, with no other international influences in their family tree?

First performed in 2013, Protein’s revised performance tours this year around the UK, with a few stops in Italy. Polished and with some topical additions to take into account the Brexit referendum, the new version doesn’t differ significantly from the original. Certain aspects - like the questioning of economic migrants - gain more space, but what really makes the piece more relevant are the events we are currently living in.

As artistic director Luca Silvestrini explained, the production detected a sense of division among people that later exploded with Brexit and Trump’s election as president. “It is important at this time to be challenged,” he continues, reflecting on the transformative power of performing arts. “Theatre is about change”: on whatever side of the debate the public stands, the key is to make people think, face the issues, and start a conversation.

The performance explores the stories of its protagonists, all migrants of first or second generations, from Asia, to Africa, from South America, to the near Europe, even the neighbour Ireland.

On the floor, projected traces of a river are crossed and swiped out by a perpendicular broken blue line. As an artist, Silvestrini points to the interpersonal meaning of the term border: “It is the outer part of yourself.” It is the space between people, the limit of an individual, an area to take care of. But in recent times, the word has assumed a very negative connotation. Drawn to separate, a border represents a safe harbour behind which to hide, a barricade to distantiate the other, a clear perimeter to define the limit of the property.

The thought goes fast to the racist attacks post-referendum, the wall along Mexico, the clashes of the police in Spain, the dead bodies on the Greek islands.

Border TaLes 2017 shows how values can reconcile when getting in touch with another way of seeing things

The stories intertwining on the stage have one thing in common: Britain. It starts with a couple of friends discussing the British habit of a few drinks down the pub. Andrew Gardiner and Stephen Moynihan give a taste of what will follow: a comic dialogue with truths. Their movements either emphasize the sentences or release their inner energy.

The scenes reenact typical conversations ‘welcoming’ the foreigner - with questions such as “Do you understand my English?” or classic comments on nostalgia. The persistent “where are you actually from?” sounds familiar, as the texture of our communities are more and more diverse.

“I wouldn’t have made this piece if I wasn’t a foreigner.” Having lived for more than 20 years in the UK, Silvestrini started to face the many questions and an emerging sense of displacement. The piece was inspired by this rather common feeling: not British by birth, but neither complete in the original nationality because of so many years spent abroad, the person becomes part of a multitude of foreigners, in between countries and in between identities.

Some people prefer to “stick to their own kind” - as Gardiner says in the show -, maintaining original traditions that seem to have been passed down the generations unbroken and unchanged. But younger generations cannot keep a constant shield from the outside world. And from this blending, questions about identity and conflict become stronger as they reach maturity. They are British, but also outsiders.

One of the most interesting moment was the “I think, you think” sequence, where loads of stereotypes related to Asian, Irish, Muslim, Black cultures are thrown into a paradoxical text. The outcome of the segment is funny, but it pinches at the chore our more or less (un)conscious prejudices.

“It may sound a bit cliché,” says Silvestrini, “but dance is really about communal spirit.” The production plays around how Asians move differently from Europeans, the strong beats of Africans, and the melodic notes of South Americans. On the other hand, Border Tales 2017 shows how values can reconcile when getting in touch with another way of seeing things.

The folk dance, which brought the show to an end, was a really engaging moment, summarising in smooth swirls and gradual linking and unchaining of arms the essence of Border Tales.

Border Tales 2017 is currently touring.

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