Luca Silvestrini, director of Protein, is one of the UK's most consistently provocative choreographers, with works such as Dear Body and LOL pointing a satirical finger at society's most absurd contradictions. Typical Protein productions are a taut, witty fusion of text and physical theatre; you spend a lot of time laughing. So the heavy-handed didacticism of Border Tales comes as a surprise.
The piece's subject is ethnic stereotyping, the reductive assumptions and judgments that people make based on race, colour and creed. Stuart Waters is the crass but well-meaning headbanger who, like a manic master of ceremonies, tries to integrate the diverse cast. It's not an easy task. Stephen Moynihan is "a bit of a gaylord", Salah El Brogy is a Muslim ("Wow! Heavy"), and there are protocol problems between Piedad Albarracin Seiquer and Yuyu Rau ("You can bow, but don't touch; they're a bit funny about touch over there").
One by one, the dozen-strong cast express their dismay at the way they are perceived. For Taiwanese Rau there's the image of Asian women as submissive, for Nigerian-born Femi Oyewole the stereotype of the black man as over-endowed stud, and as El Brogy wryly informs us: "My six wives helped me make the bomb. I beat my wives five times a day. Now I'm going to take my beautiful camel for a walk."
The problem is that the presentation of such discriminatory cliches is itself a cliche. Andy Pink's music is pleasurably atmospheric, but Silvestrini's choreography fails to get the best out of an excellent cast of dancers, among whom El Brogy and Eryck Brahmania are outstanding. A dance company is a privileged entity, but you sense a greater truth in the easy harmony of these multinational performers (and the preparedness of a dozen major UK cultural organisations to fund them) than in their protestations of victimhood. "Is it a melting pot or a big fucking time bomb?" asks Waters. It's the wrong question, and the failure of Border Tales to explore the territory between these extremes makes for a disappointing evening.
Choreographer Drew McOnie has set up his own company with a view to bridging the gap between musical theatre and pure dance, and his first production, Drunk, is an energetic statement of intent. The idea is that a young woman (Gemma Sutton) wanders into a bar, and the drinks on offer prompt bittersweet memories of her past lovers. It's a flimsy premise, and the song lyrics are on the thin side, although rhyming "girls' libidos" with "snugly fitting Speedos" takes a certain cheesy genius. But Grant Olding's score and McOnie's choreography are tight and the dancing and characterisation (each performer is a drink) never less than snappy. Ashley Andrews is a droll Scotch and Anabel Kutay's decadent, dead-eyed Absinthe recalls her sultry performance in Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words. The best number is Pimm's, featuring a bunch of roaringly pissed hooray types. The Boat Race section, in which they're simultaneously rowing and enjoying guffawing, Sloaney sex, is brilliantly funny and shows that McOnie has more to offer than slickness. If he can sustain that level of inventiveness, and avoid the temptation to fall back on hackneyed razzle-dazzle, he's got an interesting future ahead of him.
Protein's Border Tales, whose subject matter is at odds with 'the easy harmony of these multinational performers'. Chris Nash