By Ellie Buchdahl

28 June 2018 - 11:08

Portrait of Luca Silvestrini, Artistic Director of Protein Dance
"A lot of stereotypical thinking comes from within ourselves. We assume that people see us as stereotypes. It made me laugh when I realised I’d thought to myself ‘this person must think that because I’m Italian, I eat pasta every day’." Luca Silvestrini, Artistic Director - Protein Dance ©

Alicia Clarke

When Luca Silvestrini and his company Protein Dance first performed Border Tales in 2013, it had a mixed reception. He revived it in 2017 – and its themes of national and personal identity struck a different chord. 

Luca is an Italian-born choreographer who studied in the UK and now lives in London. Here, he explains how he developed the dramatic dance piece Border Tales – and suggests some ways that choreographers can use dance to deliver a complex message.

Start from personal experience

I am originally Italian, and I came to the UK in 1994 to complete my dissertation from my university in Bologna. A year later I moved to London to train at Trinity Laban dance school. 

I loved London straight away. There is so much culture – you can do dance classes in different places and see shows every day. The training at Laban combined theory with technique in a way that was completely new to me. 

I met someone, fell in love, and settled down in the UK. I was so happy – but even so, after 20 years in the UK, I started to feel an awkward sense of losing something about my native background, but still not fully gaining what it was to be British. I called it ‘in-between-ness’. I found it especially interesting because I knew many other people who felt the same way. This was the starting point for Border Tales.

Develop your ideas through research

I decided that I wanted to explore this sense of in-between-ness in a production for the company, Protein Dance, which I founded 1997 with a Swiss friend of mine who was also living in the UK.

I went to the European Dancehouse Network to start my research – this is an EU cofounded project that links dancers and dance organisations. With help from the British Council, I led dance workshops in the UK and Palestine with recently arrived asylum seekers. I was particularly interested in hearing questions that participants were asked when they arrived. They ranged from ones I was used to – ‘Where are you from? How long are you staying here? Do you miss home?’ – to very intimate ones – ‘Do you have children? Are you planning on children?’ One guy said that the moment you replied to those kinds of questions, you felt abused; it was like giving away part of yourself.   

You see this in Border Tales. In one part, the performers interrogate each other and there is a physical response to each of those questions, like being hit by something invisible. 

Draw on the experience of your company

Protein Dance isn’t a fixed company, and for Border Tales, I auditioned specifically for a group of interested, international people who could bring their own experience. The cast has three members who are not from the UK – one Colombian, one Irish, and one Taiwanese. Others are British born but with different backgrounds, such as Chinese or Nigerian. I had loads of material after two months of research, so I shared it with the company as a starting point for their own experiences. 

Kenny, for instance, is himself British Chinese. His family moved to the UK in the 1970s. In the show, he talks about being a young Chinese guy in Chesterfield – being one of the only Chinese boys in the classroom, and not knowing how to speak ‘good’ Chinese to his mum, for example. 

This idea of having to live two lives, one at home and one outside home, was very common in my research. When you go to school or you’re playing with other kids, you desperately try to blend in, but if you bring back your school life into your family, you get into trouble. 

Photo of Border Tales performance by Protein Dance
"Border Tales" by Protein Dance ©

Jane Hobson

Focus on the audience

My main interest is that the audience feels the experience of the show is ‘worth it’ – and by that, I mean it should stay with you after you leave the auditorium. With Border Tales, I was doubly keen to connect with the audience because my experience of making the show had made me reflect a lot on my own personal ideas. 

One thing, for example, I found particularly striking, was the way that a lot of stereotypical thinking comes from within ourselves. We assume that people see us as stereotypes. It made me laugh when I realised I’d thought to myself ‘this person must think that because I’m Italian, I eat pasta every day’. I bring that into a scene where the cast repeat different stereotypes, saying, ‘I think you think I do such-and-such…’.

Tackle serious topics lightly

I believe that a lighter, less rigid style can say important things. The idea of Protein Dance was to get away from the stereotype of dance being purist and high-brow, and to connect better with audiences. 

We combine dance with words, singing, acting, and audience participation. I think all this helps better connect with serious subject matter – it’s more fluid.

We also use humour in a way that contrasts with the serious subject matter. In Border Tales there is a character called Andy, who is English. He is larger-than-life, and some of the views he expresses seem racist. This isn’t the only side to him at all, but it’s interesting how the show’s critics – particularly those in the UK – have really disliked this character. It makes me wonder whether people secretly fear they’ve felt some of these sentiments, or whether they think we’re suggesting that they are like Andy ‘because’ they are British. 

Allow the times to change the show

The show got a mixed reception when we first toured it in 2013. When we brought it back in 2017, suddenly it had an amazing impact, much more than when we first toured it. The time has changed. The sense of awareness has changed. This is not just in the context of Brexit but also other issues in the UK, the EU, and around the world. But in terms of the show, the only change I made was to add one single line – you’ll have to see the show to find out what that is.

Take the show to different audiences

One of the great things about Romania’s Sibiu International Theatre Festival is that there are international companies and promoters taking part. We’ve made sure the piece is surtitled in both English and Romanian so it’s as accessible as possible.

We have taken the show to Italy and Switzerland, and after Romania, we’re going to South Korea. After that there may be more. 

The show is set in the UK, but people tell me it really touched them on all levels, particularly regarding that sense of in-between-ness. This was exactly my intention – something that translates very easily to a diverse range of experiences.

Border Tales performed at the Sibiu International Theatre Festival, and travels to South Korea later this year. For full details and listings, visit www.proteindance.co.uk

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