The Place, London, UK; February 28, 2014
Luca Silvestrini’s Protein has built up an enviable reputation for witty, dynamic, innovative dance theatre and won the 2011 Critics Circle Best Independent Dance Company award. Their last work “LOL” met with rapturous reviews and toured to four continents. So a new Protein production is a major event on the dance scene and the theme of “Border Tales”, “…notions of identity and multicultural living,” (to quote Silvestrini’s programme notes) left me full of anticipation. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t live up to expectations.
The essence of the Protein approach is the combination of movement and text and it’s the latter that’s the problem here. “Border Tales” focuses on the stereotypes that we Brits conjure up about immigrants and the petty racist comments often associated with Daily Mail readers. While this language certainly can be found in the streets and bars around us, the sheer banality of the statements makes it difficult to create an interesting backdrop for the dance and music, and even worse in a Protein work, is rarely funny. The running length of some 90 minutes stretches the material way beyond what it deserves.
Stuart Waters – all the artists are called by their real names in the show – is the focus of the production: a British everyman struggling to come to terms with the newcomers around him. The problem with the character is typified in a scene where he organises a party and underlines his ignorance by mistaking Taiwan for Thailand and then one by one patronises and offends his guests. Waters puts abundant energy into the role, but the character was completely unconvincing for me. For a start, why is this prejudiced man, who has previously said “Foreigners are everywhere,” inviting immigrants to a party and even pretending to be welcoming?
Femi Oyewole highlights stereotypes of black men by walking round, leering at the women in the audience, clutching his crotch and dancing in a lascivious manner. This fine dancer deserves better material.
Some of the dance contributions break through to a higher level. Yuyu Rau as an awkward, puzzled Taiwanese sets up stereotypes and then breaks them down effectively. Eryck Brahmania describes the dichotomy of living with traditional parents in a progressive society and dances with flair and precision. Salah El Brogy opens the dance element of the show with a solo full of blistering power expressing the frustration and anguish that immigrants can face. While some of the ensemble dance reflects the banality of the text, several sequences work well especially in a trio for three men, remembering childhood conflicts with fast, staccato movement.The music by Andy Pink is led by Anthar Kharana on an eclectic mix of instruments and illustrates the pleasures of the multicultural arts scene in the UK.
There is no question of the concerns of Silvestrini for the problems of immigrants. And in a coda, he seems to address some of the issues raised above when Stephen Moynihan tells the audience that we “…probably think we are nothing like Stuart, but you are.” I want to put it on record that I am not. Despite the reservations, Protein remains an important strand in the life of UK dance and the relative failure of “Border Tales” has not dimmed my enthusiasm for the company. I look forward to their next production.