Dance-Theater Review: MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (North American Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on February 8, 2024

in Dance,Theater-International,Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


Set to 28 songs of pop icon Sting, newly arranged and recorded with Beverley Knight and Lynval Golding (of The Specials), Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Kate Prince (So You Think You Can Dance, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) and her Zoo Nation company have a story to tell about the refugee experience. The storytelling — think jukebox musical for dance — starts off awfully murky with enough movement going on from fifteen world-class dancers to create inertia from centrifugal force. It’s a hip hop celebration in an unnamed peaceful village, which — based on Anna Fleischle’s Mid-East-informed costumes — is somewhere in the Arab World. After the opening, there is a beautiful wedding scene (“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”) with more lyrical lock/pop/break hip hop infused with an assortment of contemporary dance styles, astounding athleticism, and a tinge of classicism.

With Natasha Chivers‘ extraordinary side-lighting, Ben Stones‘ set with morphing panels like an organ, David McEwan‘s ferocious sound, and Andrzej Goulding‘s evocative video design, we are suddenly plunged into the world of civil war. Accompanied by chaos, violence, sexual abuse, anxiety, and torture, the villagers are dramatically torn apart. The story, which doesn’t really become clear until the second act, follows three siblings — with tragedy befalling them at every turn — who experience the three stages that refugees must endure: A stunningly staged trek in a makeshift boat to an asylum country; impersonal and even hostile treatment upon arrival to a camp (where guards in black dance to “Every Breath You Take”); and, after being detained because of their ethnicity, the post-migration assimilation phase. In the much easier to follow second act, they try to overcome the horrors they’ve seen and find a new life and hopefully love and joy at the same time. One voluntarily repatriates to his home country, another ends up in NYC, and a third resettles in an island nation, but nightmares remain.

Now on a North American tour (see dates below), Message in a Bottle may have lacklustre dramaturgy from Lolita Chakrabarti, and is better-suited to a smaller theater than the Hollywood Pantages — where it plays through Sunday (I suggest sitting center or in the mezzanine) — but there is an emotional narrative, thanks to the dancers and stunning new music arrangements by Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton). From aching cello to orchestral rock, it’s as if we are hearing Sting’s work for the first time. The impetus for the show — shedding light on displacement and human trafficking — rings clear without being depressing or dour, even as we witness the devastating effects of war,  and there are breathtaking scenes that set a new standard for dance-theater. It’s not so much character-driven movement as it is generalized (suffering, happiness, etc.), as dancers often act out the imagery of the lyrics — and it is the lyrics that are mined for their emotional and dramatic heft.

The synopsis mentions the siblings by name — Leto, Mati and Tana — but they are never referred to as such on stage. This generalizes the plight of refugees at the expense of clarity. The narrative may be hard to follow at times, but the actions of these extraordinary movement artists speak louder than words. The barefoot dancers of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds are charismatic with expressive faces. It is astounding how they adapt to many genres of dance, including house, krump, African dance, lindy hop, salsa, experimental and freestyle (assistant choreographers are Tommy Franzen and Lizzie Gough). The music, movement, and message of this often-thrilling evening are triumphant.

The company dancers, each of whom has learned more than one role, include Oliver Andrews, Lindon Barr, Deavion Brown, David Cottle, Harrison Dowzell, Nestor Garcia Gonzalez, Natasha Gooden, Lizzie Gough, Anna Holström, Megan Ingram, Ajani Johnson-Goffe, Charlotte Lee, Daniella May, Dylan Mayoral, Serena McCall, Lukas McFarlane, Robbie Ordona, Lara Renaud, Hannah Sandilands, Jessey Stol, Steven Thompson, Gavin Vincent, and Malachi Welsh.

photos by Helen Maybanks and Lynn Theisen

Message in a Bottle
Zoo Nation: The Kate Prince Company
Sadler’s Wells and Universal Music UK
recommended for ages 12 and up
reviewed at the Hollywood Pantages on February 7, 2024 (ends on Feb. 11)
for tickets visit Pantages

Remaining Message In A Bottle Tour Dates for ticket info, visit Sadler’s Wells

Feb 13 – 25 2024 Buell Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Denver, USA
Feb 28 – Mar 3 2024 Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago, USA
Mar 12 – 16 2024 Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts, Montreal, Canada
Mar 20 – 23 2024 Meridian Hall, Toronto, Canada
Mar 26 – 30 2024 Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston, USA
Apr 2 – 7 2024 Knight Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, USA
Apr 9 – 21 2024 Opera House, The Kennedy Center, Washington DC, USA
Apr 30 – May 12 2024 New York City Center, New York, USA
May 14 – 19 2024 Miller Theater, Kimmel Cultural Campus, Philadelphia, USA

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