Music legend Sting has always been a political beast, spreading messages of social conscious – and now his hits are being used in one of the most relevant dance productions of our time.
Message In A Bottle features Sting’s songs as the soundtrack to an impactful storyline about refugees that has the power to move, both emotionally and politically.
Combining hip-hip, ballet and contemporary dance, the show has been created by Kate Prince, the artistic director at ZooNation, who was behind the acclaimed Into the Hoods and Some Like It Hip Hop. But it’s Kate’s background as a lifelong Sting fan that has led to this memorable collaboration.
Catching the dance show at London’s Peacock Theatre ahead of its visit to Birmingham Hippodrome in May 2021, I got behind-the-scenes insights from choreographers and dancers Lukas McFarlane and Robia Milliner Brown before the Coronavirus lockdown. The dance show will now be in Birmingham over two days on May 4 and 5 in 2021.
The show follows three siblings from happiness in a village through a journey of desperation and grief after it’s destroyed in war and they are separated. There’s tough themes along the way including sexual violence and imprisonment in camps portrayed through vibrant dance routines featuring everything from breakdance to ballet – but there’s hope too.
Sting songs as never heard before
Message In A Bottle features 28 iconic hits by Sting, which he re-recorded with totally new arrangements with help from music supervisor Alex Lacamoire, the Grammy and Tony Award-winning creative artist famous for his work on musical Hamilton and The Greatest Showman.
There are new versions with strings or a different tempo to help them fit with the tone and mood of the hard-hitting storyline.
Music includes classics like Every Breath You Take, Roxanne, Walking On The Moon, Englishman In New York and Shape Of My Heart. While Beverley Knight recorded new spine-tingling interpretations of Fields Of Gold, Invisible Sun and If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.
There’s even Lynval Golding, rhythm guitarist and vocalist from The Specials, appearing on track The Bed’s Too Big Without You.
The show came about after Kate wrote an email to Sadler’s Wells about a completely different project and put a little PS at the bottom about wanting to work with Sting. A week later, she was meeting the music icon in a hotel lobby, pitching the idea to him.
Sting was on board from early on, saying: “I went to a very early workshop of Kate’s and I was kind of blown away by it.
“The response for me was very emotional – and not just because I was honoured that they were using my music to express something – but there was something happening at a deeper level, of understanding, or beyond understanding, it was moving me in ways I couldn’t quite interpret.”
Dancer Lukas McFarlane, who won Sky 1’s Got To Dance in 2013 at the age of 19, remembers that workshop well, adding: “Sting got emotional and said he never thought he’d see his music like this. He said it was a 3D version of his music.
“He said he’d spent so long in his career worried about how the music sounded to his audiences, he never thought it could be visually produced in the way we did it. He gave the green light right there.”
Dance as a universal language
There’s an authenticity to the show that comes from Kate using documentaries and newspaper articles as background material, which she made the dancers look at too.
Canadian Lukas explained: “As performers living in a first world country and portraying something quite real and heavy, it was important we understood the gravity of the story we were telling.
“Dance is such a universal language. To eliminate the need for language audibly, let’s you sit with the emotion of what the characters are going through in a way that you wouldn’t with dialogue.
“There’s so much energy portrayed on stage; it’s so raw, it’s so genuine and that helps to tell quite a raw and emotional story of these people having to flee their home and find a sense of family, protection and safety in other places where they feel very foreign and isolated.”
The realistic nature of the show paid off as one woman from a documentary they watched – Rania Mustafa Ali – came to see the opening night and told the dancers how touching it was for her.
Filming her escape from Syria on a mobile phone, the footage was aired by The Guardian as Rania’s Odyssey and Rania’s story was even the basis for the youngest sister’s storyline in Message In A Bottle.
Robia Milliner Brown, who plays the mother in the show, said: “Rania came in and was completely blown away (by the show) and we were all just blubbery messes. It’s hard with a topic like this. You don’t want people to take it in the wrong way.
“It’s quite emotive, a lot of people have come and been in tears or close to,” added Robia.
Dance with a message
Mixing between a range of dance genres, there’s a freshness and vibrancy on stage throughout the 1 hour 50 minute show.
Sting’s biggest hit Every Breath You Take is saved for a heart-wrenching routine when the siblings are split apart while trying to flee to safety while Message In A Bottle is a stirring, energetic group number to take the audience into the interval.
Lukas, who has worked as a music industry choreographer for Taylor Swift and Celine Dion, has one of the most memorable routines in The Bed’s Too Big Without You, when he dances with digital shadows beamed on to his bed. He’s also at his most emotive through songs Roxanne and So Lonely, as his character battles with what has happened to his wife during the war.
Lukas’ background as contemporary and commercial combines with Kate’s breakdancing knowledge to create what he describes as “a match made in heaven”. While Robia choreographed hip hop elements of the production to reflect the refugee’s stories with a lot of repetition of dance moves both in joy and later in destruction.
The result is a compelling character-led story that is incredibly moving and lays bare the struggles of refugees. Despite the optimistic, hopeful finale, this show makes you want to do more to help.
“Regardless of background, race, ethnicity, sexual preference – all those things – at the end of the day, love and hope is what prevails,” added Lukas. “And that’s been the driving force for all of us when we’ve been creating this.
“It’s about knowing you can create a family anywhere, and maybe that doesn’t necessarily mean blood. Respect, understanding and acceptance is what makes people feel like they belong.”
Message In A Bottle is at Birmingham Hippodrome on Tuesday 4 May to Wednesday 5 May 2021 and has been brought to the stage by Sadler’s Wells and Universal Music UK with co-producers Birmingham Hippodrome and The Lowry. For more information and tickets, click here.