Dance Review: MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (North American Tour at New York City Center)

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by Paola Bellu on May 4, 2024

in Dance,Theater-New York,Tours


Director-choreographer Kate Prince, founder of London-based hip hop dance troupe ZooNation, created a story about survival, hope, and love. Inspired by Sting’s hits, Message in a Bottle premiered on London’s West End in February 2020 and revived a year later before being interrupted by COVID. Produced by Sadler’s Wells and Universal Music UK, it makes its debut at New York City Center for a special two-week run as part of a North American tour; if you are looking for a dance concert with an iconic soundtrack and amazing performers who can shift from contemporary to ballet to hip-hop to jazz in a beat, this is it.

The score of new musical arrangements by Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton) and Martin Terefe is made up of 28 songs from pop icon Sting, with Beverley Knight and Lynval Golding (of The Specials) adding glorious vocals. From aching cello to orchestral rock, it’s as if we are hearing Sting’s work for the first time. The enchanting set by Ben Stones reminds us of North Africa; a semi-transparent amber round container, both a sun and an hourglass, spills sand on stage. Andrzej Goulding’s projections keep moving with grace and fluidity on the backdrop. And the dancers — dressed in colorful fluttery costumes by Anna Fleischle to underline the merry young lives in a peaceful village — are illuminated one by one with extreme precision by Natasha Chivers.

All four designers create the perfect stage for this work, changing colors, shapes, and media to help with the emotional part of the story, adding a lot to the choreography and the soundtrack. “Shadows in the Rain” is one example: With Chivers‘ extraordinary side-lighting, 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. This is the perfect tempest, the kind that soaks you in and out — without having to use real water like other plays have uselessly done this season.

The dream is broken with “King Of Pain” as war lands on the village; Accompanied by chaos, violence, sexual abuse, anxiety, and torture, the villagers are dramatically torn apart. Men in hoodies bring mayhem, attack and abduct women (“Don’t Stand Too Close to Me” has a new creepier meaning,) the father is killed and the family is confronted with impossible choices in order to survive.

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. It’s the choreography and the ensemble, not the narrative, that is the focus of this piece because it is a dance concert, not a theatrical performance.

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 versatile dancers were magnificent: I loved Natasha Gooden’s explosive energy, Deavion Brown’s grace (especially in the pas de deux with Harrison Dowzell), Lukas McFarlane’s vitality, and Gavin Vincent’s smooth breaking.

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.were also a perfect mix between the original hits and the needed soundtrack to recount the story. Millions of people are displaced every year, brutally uprooted; we call them migrants, consider them a problem, and wash our hands of all political and human responsibilities. Kate Prince is using iconic music and popular choreographies to bring this tragedy to light; for some it may be a superficial approach to such a catastrophe because of the cheery and poppy nature of Message in a Bottle, but it may be a perfect vehicle for younger people to know what is happening. Then again, it’s highly enjoyable just as a dance concert.

photos by Helen Maybanks and Lynn Theisen

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.

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 New York City Center on May 1, 2024 (ends on May 12, 2024)
for tickets visit NYCC

for remaining Message In A Bottle tour dates, visit Sadler’s Wells

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