Going back through reviews of Border Tales from its initial March 2014 run is fascinating — it almost beggars belief to see that one begins with “Is multiculturalism still a sensitive issue?”[1] All of them connect this hybrid of live music, dance and spoken word to an ominous backdrop of increasing hostility towards immigrants. Three years later, with some new cast members and an avalanche of very real threats towards free international movement, the arrival of physical theatre choreographer Luca Silvestrini’s Border Tales at the Edinburgh Fringe could not have been better timed. It is possibly the only overtly post-Brexit show this year that, though peppered with authentic moments of alienation, hostility, aggression and loneliness, is ultimately infused with joy and unity.

Based on the performers’ own life stories, this show is less about what happens upon reaching a border than about the borders we construct between ourselves and The Other. The cross-cultural music is provided by Anthar Kharana, who occasionally hops into the fray to share part of his raised-as-a-Catholic-Colombian identity, accompanied by some beautiful vocals from Temitope Ajose Cutting, Salah El Brogy, and Yuyu Rau.

The story, such as it is, follows Andy and Stephen in the first of several “motion conversation”[2] pas de deux, with an exchange of different life experiences, prejudices, and personal quirks that remains impressively lucid while they roll, spin, and lift each other around the floor. Stephen takes up the mantle of part-time narrator, chronicling Andy’s misguided attempts to host a series of welcome parties for non-native Brits. Each of the five newcomers get a moment in the spotlight to move, soliloquise and sing their way through their life in the UK, but Moynihan’s story is eked out a little more sporadically than the rest. Growing up in a row of identical Irish houses, with everyone going to church on Sundays and brussel sprouts on every plate at Christmas, blending in with everyone else and trying to be the same isn’t much of a concern, “because you already are.”

It soon transpires that Andy, though “not racist”, is a hilariously accurate summation of the behaviours and mindsets into which even the most worldly of us can fall at one time or another. As part of an attempt to make his welcoming parties more lively and authentic, in something of a meta-dance number, Andy ropes Stephen into taking a series of dance lessons with him, from Egyptian Salah leading them in a circle dance, to Taiwanese Yuyu walking them through the delicate, glass-like movements (stereo)typically associated with East Asian cultures, complete with a paper fan. This healthy examination of our unconscious fetishisation is where Border Tales is at its most vivid and charismatic, with its “I think that you think…” game-like dance being a particular highlight:

Stephen: “…that my name is Murphy.”

Temitope: “…that I’m an angry black woman.”

Yuyu: “…that I’m sexually repressed.”

Salah: “…that my father is an oil magnate.”

It would be easy (and quite understandable) for a show like Border Tales mercilessly to skewer Brexiteers, Conservatives, advocates of strictly controlled or closed borders, and virtually anyone outside the multicultural, intellectual echo chamber of London. But even Andy, the designated foolish foil of the piece, gets an equal footing during “I think that you think…”:

“…that I voted UKIP.”

“…that I actually want to be a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent.”

Indeed, Andy is rarely portrayed as malicious or chauvinistic — he is clearly delighted by the chance to dabble in practices that are not “dancing around a maypole”, and every colossal faux pas happens with an innocent smile on his face. He is a wannabe “cosmopolitan” citizen of a globalised world as, with our childlike curiosity and subsequent excitement around “fusion” dance, fashion, and cuisine, most of us are. We can get every kind of food we could possibly want, from anywhere in the world “…and put it on a sixteen-inch pizza.”

Border Tales is not, however, without its more sobering moments. The question of how much space a newcomer is entitled to in a different country burns as furiously now as it did during the Second World War, with no universally accepted answer at the time of writing. A fourth wall break that, through a bit of audience interaction, demonstrates how many of our favourite dishes come from outside the United Kingdom, unexpectedly turns into a tense exploration of the power dynamics between son of Chinese immigrants Kenny Wing Tao Ho and Northern native Andy, and the possessive anxiety around the concept of “my space” versus “your space”. This harks back to an opening number where Andy and Salah wordlessly attempt to greet one another, only to end up fighting a dual for the upper hand, and for ownership of the stage. In trying to follow the rote semiotics of greeting to which we are accustomed – a handshake, a bow, a hug – we risk overlooking what the other person in that moment would actually be most comfortable with.

In detailing the nuances of its multicultural performers’ lives, the eponymous borders of Border Tales are also shown to take multiple forms. In addition to conceptual borders between native and non-native UK residents, Kenny and Temitope describe the intergenerational language barriers and conflicts of interest within their own families. “Her English was as bad as my Cantonese,” Kenny says of his mother, “so we shouted at each other a lot.” In a particularly touching monologue, Temitope breaks away from the traditional Nigerian family values her mother tries to instill in her, of becoming a lawyer or a doctor, cooking every kind of dish, making sure her husband never does the chores, and raising children. In exercising her free will to build up her own set of values and goals, she stands with her head held high, albeit alone.

There are also the borders that are reinforced with every unsolicited question from immigration officials, acquaintances, and complete strangers. I don’t know if this was part of the 2014 incarnation of the show, but given the spike in hate crimes and acid attacks against Muslims and those who are perceived to be Muslim following the Manchester arena and London Bridge attacks,[3] having Salah as the target in question is an astute choice:

“Where are you from?”

“Can you recite your passport number without looking?”

“Why is it that a man can have four wives, but a woman can only have one husband?”

“What do you think about radicalization?”

“Where are you really from?”

“Do you pray five times a day?”

Salah responds to each question with a spasm, a drop to the knee, contortions that speed up until he is literally floored by the psychic exhaustion of this endless interrogation. When the tables are later turned on Andy, and everyone else starts asking similar unsolicited questions, teasingly treating him like the outsider, his fear of The Other, hitherto sublimated into feverishly cheerful conversations, finally comes out:

“I don’t understand you! I do. Not. Understand. You… Salah, do you want me to read the Qu’ran so I can better understand your culture? Yuyu, do you want me to learn the whole of the Chinese language just so you can feel more at home? What is it you want?”

It’s a widely familiar expression of frustration and hostility, whether recognisable in family members, friends, colleagues, or even ourselves: how can I accept you coming into my field of experience if you don’t tell me how? Border Tales does not grant Andy’s retorts with an answer, spoken or otherwise. Even though so many of us insist on pursuing one before the other, fully understanding the motivations of someone who travels to the UK from halfway across the world (or from across the Irish Sea) is not necessary in order to accept and welcome them. After all, as one of the most abstract art forms, contemporary dance habitually eludes straightforward, easily digestible interpretations, but that isn’t necessarily an indication of its shortcomings, nor should it prevent an audience from being uplifted by its aesthetic and emotional energy.

Border Tales is on at 2:40pm at Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, until the 26th August (more information here), and will then tour around the UK in November 2017 (more information here).

 

[1] Catherine Sutherland. “Luca Silvestrini’s Protein Dance: Border Talesbachtrack 2nd March 2014. https://bachtrack.com/review-feb-2014-protein-border-tales-london

[2] Peter Lindley. “Dance Breaks Barriers Down”. Morning Star 6th March 2014. http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-2992-Dance-Border-Tales#.WYg5W9PytPM

[3] Alan Travis, “Anti-Muslim Hate Surges After Manchester and London Bridge Attacks”, The Guardian 20th June 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/20/anti-muslim-hate-surges-after-manchester-and-london-bridge-attacks