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Q&A: Choreographer Luca Silvestrini on 'Border Tales', Dance and Displacement

Photo © Alicia Clarke

Choreographer Luca Silvestrini co-founded award-winning company Protein in 1997. As Artistic Director he is known for idiosyncratic dance theatre work provoked by its deep connections with the everyday. Protein's latest work is Border Tales, a thought-provoking and poignant commentary on multicultural Britain through dance, live music and dialogue compiled from the performers’ personal experiences. Border Tales gazes satirically on stereotypical thinking about migrant outsiders and bigoted homelanders. Run Riot asked Luca about his own sense of being on the border, and how the work engages with ideas of identity in Brexit Britain.


Eli Goldstone: Hi Luca. In developing Border Tales, you began to research the borders that people experience and you found that 'in-betweenness' was a recurring theme. I'm very interested in the dichotomy of cultural identity when one has an experience of living in two or more cultures. Can you talk to me a little about your experience of feeling like a 'foreigner'?

Luca Silvestrini: I first came to the UK in 1994, and London has been my living and work place for over 20 years now. At the start you just feel like a new comer discovering a new world, where language and customs become necessary tools to survive and adapt. I believe it’s once you have fully integrated that you begin to question your identity and notice that you are somewhere ‘in between’. I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am too Italian to be considered English, and I am becoming too English to be considered Italian. I sometimes speak my native language with an English accent, while my English will always sound foreign. You are a sort of hybrid and this, at times, can be confusing and displacing. I believe that these feelings are determined by both the way others relate to you and by our own (often preconceived) idea of how you see yourself.

Eli: Did you find when collaborating that this feeling of not belonging was common? What sort of experiences that lend themselves to this feeling of being an outsider did you come across?

Luca: I came across fascinating and powerful examples of this ‘in-betweeness’, both during my research time around the world and in London, with the performers, during the making of Border Tales. Most of these stories deal with negotiating between the culture at home (that of your foreign parents) and the culture outside (that of the country you were born or moved to). It is harder to find a balance when these two identities are so far away from each other, and there is an incredible amount of pressure for those who want to protect their family origins whilst integrating into an environment that has different demands and values. I believe the hardest thing is when it’s not about reaching a balance, but when it’s about choosing either one or the other. I remember meeting an Iranian dad, who had migrated to Denmark, having to surrender and accept that his son was born and growing in a different, at times hostile environment, and that his attempt to continue a cultural lineage was an impossible one.

Eli: I find that cultural identity tends to intensify as one gets older - that the process of physically moving away from what you once knew tends to make a person emotionally much closer to an idea of it as intrinsic to the self. Do you think that it's just nostalgia or something more than that?

Luca: I agree with that and I think it’s not just nostalgia. It’s hard to pin this down, but in my case it has to do with my parents getting older and needing more attention from me (reversed roles as part of the life cycle), and you know that this process holds some important emotional realities that reconnect you with a lesser known, perhaps abandoned part of yourself.

Eli: You satirise the contradictions of a 'multicultural' society - is it important for the audience members to question their own ideas and behaviours rather than assuming that they are already in on the joke?

Luca: Yes, it is. We should question more if our attitudes, actions and thinking towards others are appropriate, and if we take into consideration more than what we seem to know and what we feel. A multicultural society presents constant and new challenges and we cannot be too complacent. I use humour and satire to touch upon important, often uncomfortable issues as I believe this is the best way to hold up a mirror and make us reflect.

Eli: The 'I Think You Think' social media campaign is designed to provoke discussion around the themes of the show. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Luca: In Border Tales, the performers are questioning who they are, how they come across and how much of what they think of themselves is based on what they think people think. Stereotypical thinking is a bit of a trap we all fall into, especially when we deny its existence. We have extended the ‘I Think You Think’ to our digital audiences also, asking the reader to think about their identity, or what they might ‘stereotypically’ think of others. The ‘I Think You Think’ forum demonstrates (we hope!) how easily judgemental we can be, and equally paranoid we are about what people think of us.

Photo © Chris Nash

Eli: Your work is collaborative and you co-devised Border Tales with the original cast. How drastically has Border Tales changed since its inception?

Luca: The content is pretty much the same, while a lot has changed in the presentation. Border Tales was first conceived in the round and with an additional cast. The present version is presented end-on and with no additional dancers. Five of the seven performers on stage are original cast members, and the two new performers have been engaged with the piece from the very start. Generally speaking, the piece seems to have a greater focus in our post-Brexit Britain, and the time we are living in has surely made it even more relevant.

Eli: Finally, could you tell us a little about how and why you bring dance to non-traditional audiences?

Luca: We are people focused. Protein creates and tour dance theatre that is connected to real life; it’s an experience that people can easily and deeply engage with. This is also why we want to take work to where people are, especially to those who have less opportunity or no opportunity at all to come to us. We have been taking work to the streets, to village and town halls, to care homes, lunch clubs and People Referral Units. I am fascinated about other places and ways we can reach and connect with new audiences all the time.



Border Tales

Tues 14 Nov-Sat 18 Nov

The Place