Message In A Bottle takes as its theme the biggest, saddest subject facing the world today: the international refugee crisis that is separating families and causing suffering and unrest across the globe.
Yet its origins are in a small, personal – and happy – moment in the life of the choreographer Kate Prince. She was on her honeymoon in Greece, listening to Sting’s Message In A Bottle on the beach. She’d loved it since she was a child, and it had been one of the songs she’d chosen to play at her wedding. “I started wondering, as you do, what it would be like to use Sting’s music to create a dance story.”
She mentioned the idea to Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director and Chief Executive at Sadler’s Wells. Things began to move quickly. The next thing she knew, she was in a hotel lobby with Eliza Lumley, Head of Theatre for Universal Music UK, trying to pitch the idea to Sting himself. “I was really nervous, in that way you can be when it’s a physical reaction and very much out of your control,” she says, with a broad smile. “For someone who’s a dancer, I was so physically awkward.
“And I didn’t like that I was nervous because he’s just a guy. But I think he had that impact because when I was a kid, I was so far away from even thinking that one day I might work with such a legend. One of the first concerts I ever went to as a teenager was to see him at Wembley. I’m there with thousands of people, why would I ever think I would have a conversation with him?
“But he was really lovely and he listened. He was just really open, and from that we got his permission to do a workshop, and I worked on it for two weeks and at the end of two weeks he came in with his manager and sat on a chair and fourteen dancers performed for him.”
The workshop was a revelation. “He was moved by it. He said he felt the sound had been presented to him in 3D and made him hear different things in the music.” “I was blown away by it,” Sting said later. “The response for me was very emotional not just because I was honoured that they were using my music to express something, but there was something happening at a deeper level beyond understanding. It was moving me in ways that I couldn’t quite interpret. I have had very little experience of dance so being moved was what led me to say yes, carry on. I was just intrigued by it.”
He also felt that in some ways, the exercise for him has been one of discovery. “This is my dream life exposed. I write songs in isolation. I don’t see any overriding themes, so watching people interpret the songs in a larger narrative, it’s therapy.” Excited by the entire prospect, he gave the go ahead, giving Prince carte blanche on story and on interpretation, while keeping control of approval over the music. He has since re-recorded some of the songs for the production.
Meanwhile, over the course of the two years she has been she began working on the project, Prince began to move in an unexpected direction. She doesn’t quite remember where the idea of making a narrative about refugees first came to her, but gradually it made itself impossible to ignore.
She had been in the audience in Edinburgh in 2013 when a North Korean refugee, Joseph Kim, gave a TED talk that has since been watched by nearly 3 million people on YouTube. “He made a massive impact on me and that story got me started.” She then watched other documentaries including Human Flow, Refugee and The White Helmets on Netflix, two Guardian documentaries – Escape from Syria: Rania’s Odyssey and We Walk Together – and more recently For Sama, Waad Al-Kateab’s intimate portrait of living under bombardment with her baby daughter in Aleppo.
All this research forms the background to the fictional narrative she has created in Message In A Bottle, about a family torn apart by civil war, and about ideas of home. The two brothers and their sister each have a different story to tell “because no one story of any refugee or immigrant is the same,” Prince explains. “Every single person in it and every bit of information is extracted from the truth.
“When I make dance, it’s important to me that it’s about something and that we’ve got loads of story, background, research and loads of layers. The audience doesn’t have to receive everything we put in. There is no dialogue, no narration. I just want the bodies to respond to the music, because the music is brilliant.” Nevertheless, as the piece has developed, every dancer has in their mind a clear storyline they are trying to convey. “I want it to have a very clear narrative, but it’s not like musical theatre. There you don’t stop to express a single emotion in a piece of dance. That’s what we do here.”
In doing so, Prince is asserting the power of dance – and of hip hop dance in particular – to tell huge stories, and deal with important themes. She wants to use its language to draw attention to the central, often forgotten, message of the refugee crisis. “There’s a beautiful line in We Walk Together, when one of the Syrian men says something like ‘We don’t have any weapons, only our legs. We are human, just like you.’”
She also quotes Alonzo Westbrook, the writer and hip hop pioneer. “He said ‘hip hop is the artistic response to oppression.’ If you look through history, whenever the worst thing has happened, it has brought the best art. Art is cathartic. It gives us release. I can show you a news film about refugees that’s really disturbing, and you might watch it for a while and then change the channel. But if you really engage with the story, through dance, it communicates to you in a different way. You absorb it as a work of art.”
Nevertheless, she believes that Message In A Bottle is not a depressing story. It offers hope. “It’s there to uplift and inspire like all our work, because all our work is really about one thing: love. Everything comes back to love and the power of love and the healing power of love, forgiveness and acceptance. This is a piece about the strength human beings have to keep going, to find peace again in their lives, despite trauma. It’s about resilience.”
Prince has kept Sting in mind throughout the creative process, though his actual involvement has been generously little. He has allowed her simply to get on and create a narrative around the songs she loves. “I can imagine for him that each song is unique, about something in that moment or something he’s experienced, and I’m trying to take this whole body of music and create a tale that is relevant and engaging to today’s society. It’s political. It’s moving. Hopefully funny at points.”
Message In A Bottle
Feb 13-25, 2024 • Buell Theatre