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'Message In A Bottle' Choreographed and Directed by Kate Prince. Based on the Songs of Sting

A Sadler Wells and Universal Music UK production presented by TO Live

Lyne Thiesen

Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, adjudicator, arts educator

Electrifying and Intense. A stunning and breath-taking new dance production.

“Message in A Bottle” is a breath-taking new dance production. It’s equal parts genius choreography and visionary storytelling put to Sting’s timeless and intelligent lyrics of love, war, and everything in between. It’s one of the most magnificent performances I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful, shocking, inspirational, innovative, and jaw-droppingly creative! This is a show that comes around but once in a lifetime. You absolutely cannot miss this spellbinding work of art!

The UK’s five-time Olivier-Award nominee Kate Prince treats Toronto audiences to her latest magnificent new dance show, “Message in A Bottle”, and, boy, is it a feast for the senses! She’s pulled out all the stops. Her skills and unparalleled talent bring us an original show inspired by Sting’s iconic hits and poetic lyrics. Her creative team and unbelievably talented company of 14 dancers tell us a poignant and relevant story of hope triumphing out of human suffering and displacement in a war-torn, anonymous country. Art imitating life in our modern world of strife and discord. It moved me in ways that I can’t fully describe in this review. I’m still processing the experience and thinking about its beauty days later.

This is the first time I’d seen a dance show based around the music of one artist’s work and, while not a die-hard Sting fan, I found myself revelling in the new arrangements of his iconic hits like “Every Breath You Take”, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and “Spirits in the Material World”, here given new meaning with revised tempo and pace. The stunning production, costume and lighting design is among the finest I’ve ever witnessed in a dance performance, and I’ve seen quite a few. But it’s the keen storytelling by director/choreographer Prince and her dancers that charts new ground.

I heard many refer to this as a jukebox dance show. It so much more than that! The music is brilliantly integrated into an imagined story about one family: a father, mother and their three teenaged children – Leto, Mati and Tana - living an idyllic, tribal existence in a faraway country. They live in harmony with their land, their people and each other. When a civil war erupts, the family’s world is devastated, their homes destroyed, their lives forever changed as they face this brutal reality together. They need to make impossible choices to ensure their survival. They attempt to flee their homeland and become refugees in a strange land where they are separated and imprisoned. But love and hope sustain them.

With Sting’s new arrangements, the cast brilliantly flies through the two-hour masterpiece with a stunning fusion of styles – mostly hip hop, breaking and contemporary with popping, locking, lyrical and some ballet thrown in. This mash up of styles is almost a new style in itself. The hard-hitting street hip hop here melds with the fluidity of lyrical and precision of ballet technique. The flips, tricks and head spins are all there, but the influence of the other dance styles is extraordinarily evident and breathtakingly beautiful. The incredible 14-member cast pour their hearts, souls and bodies into their characters and dance with an aliveness of empathy. Their group and solo works are stunning, poetic, astounding.

Prince communicates through dance masterfully. Her ability to tell a story with such clarity through movement alone is remarkable and no small feat for any choreographer. There was something about this performance. The feeling we were in for a special experience was palpable as the audience held its collective breath from the first dancer’s movement until their much-deserved, unanimous standing ovation. There isn’t a single step that doesn’t have a purpose.

Prince also brilliantly weaves the best design elements to augment her narrative. Video projections by award-winning designer Andrej Goulding provide moving greyscale backdrops of ocean, sky, rain, and sand with the most gorgeous and ominous silhouette work. Natasha Chivers’ exquisite lighting is spectacular, enhances the emotional intensity in every scene with banks of side lights and carefully places spotlights above that allowed performers to seemingly appear and disappear into shadows. Her use of shapes to denote confinement and isolation was claustrophobic. Her integration of lights into Goulding’s video projections was seamless. I often couldn’t discern where one ended and the other began. It was intense, dark, ominous and seconds later warm, placid, and inviting. A cast member unto itself. Stunning!

Costumes by multi award-winning designer Anna Fleischle were functional and fluid - billowy leggings, sleeveless vests, flowing skirts in muted tie-dyed colours put the dancers at the forefront. Her addition of subtle tribal patterns, futuristic grey suits with half-moon headwear, even black hoodies and overalls perfectly transported us to worlds of beauty and danger. Continuing the vision of subtly enhancing the dancers, set designer Ben Stones places the action in a simple “black box” with walls at right angles and openings magically appearing and disappearing upstage. Again, it’s minimal design for maximum impact – a few boxes that look like vegetable crates, a rotating square room framed with no walls and moveable bare flats provide lots of room for choreography.

“Message in a Bottle” is electrifying and intense, with stunning individual production elements expertly entwined to create a something much larger than the sum of its parts. New arrangements of some of Sting’s iconic and poetical hits along with newly composed interstitials perfectly fit Kate Prince’s inspired vision of war-torn countries, refugees, displacement, and human resilience. It’s relatable, visceral, and important.

While her direction and choreography are impeccable, there’s nothing that compares to watching a dancer making something live in the moment. The strength, agility and versatility of the troupe is extraordinary. This alchemy of storytelling, dance, Sting’s music, and impeccable production design elevates this theatre going experience to something transcendent.

I’m still on cloud nine.

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