Love, War and the Refugee Crisis, Set to the Music of Sting

When the choreographer Kate Prince set out several years ago to create a dance show based on the music of Sting, she was unsure what story she might be able to tell using his varied songbook.

Then she saw photos of young Syrian refugees taking desperate risks to reach safety in Europe, and she had an idea. She would use some of Sting’s and the Police’s most affecting music, songs like “Desert Rose” and “Every Breath You Take,” to tell the story of a family displaced by war.

The result is “Message in a Bottle,” which premiered in London in 2020 and comes to New York City Center in Manhattan for a two-week run beginning on Tuesday. In the nearly two-hour show, featuring Prince’s dance company, ZooNation, she draws on freestyle dance, salsa, lindy hop, street dance and other styles to bring to life 27 songs.

“People get married to my songs, people play my songs at funerals,” Sting said. “I’m always happy that they have a function. And here the function is to tell an important, worthy, wonderful story.”

In a recent interview at City Center, Prince, Sting and the composer and arranger Alex Lacamoire discussed the refugee crisis, the challenge of setting Sting’s music to dance and the role of art in times of conflict. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

“Message in a Bottle” focuses on three siblings who are driven from their home because of war. What made you want to tell this story?

KATE PRINCE I saw a photograph of Alan Kurdi, a young boy from Syria who had drowned and washed ashore. I couldn’t shake that photo, and I couldn’t shake the question of what would it take for me and my husband to pick up our daughter out of her cot, and put her in a boat and cross open water. How bad would it have to be for us to flee? It felt like story I had to tell. I didn’t feel like it was a choice.

STING It is the story of our times. None of us can get away from this. Those people in the boats are us, or could be at some point. So we can’t just say the refugees are a different species from us. We’re human beings, all of us, and we share in this problem. This piece really does put you in the shoes of people like that. They’re a family, like our families. They have the same needs, the same rights, as we do.

How did the production come together?

PRINCE I’ve long been a massive fan of Sting and the Police. My first-ever concert experience was going to Wembley Stadium to see Sting. At our wedding, we had “Walking on the Moon” as part of the service. On my honeymoon I was listening to that song, and I started thinking: “I’ve always wanted to choreograph this. I wonder if anyone’s already done it.” And I wrote to my boss at Sadler’s Wells, a dance theater in London, and managed to get a meeting with Sting, and he gave me permission to do a workshop.

STING I remember going to the workshop, seeing the bare stage, the dancers, no lights, no scenery. And I remember sitting, weeping. I was deeply moved to an extent that was totally unexpected.

How did you approach the choreography and music?

PRINCE As soon as I hear the music, the rhythm will tell me that’s what it should be. So in “Shadows in the Rain,” they do some lindy hop footwork. In “Message in a Bottle,” they’re breaking. In “Fields of Gold,” it’s a very contemporary duet. And in “Englishman in New York,” I start by doing popping isolations. The music tells me what to do.

ALEX LACAMOIRE It was fun to put on my theater hat. When Kate needed a transition or she needed a song to function in a different way, we were able to draw on different motifs. Even if the audience is not aware that we’re weaving songs and melodies in and out, subconsciously they’re aware that it’s unified because it’s all coming from one voice and one composer.

STING I don’t think songs are ever finished. I don’t think the recorded version is the tablet that can never be broken up. They’re works in progress. So I’m always happy to see or to be stimulated by somebody else’s ideas.

How do you see the relationship between these songs, which span many years, themes and styles?

STING I’ve always had a social conscience, and it’s always been layered in my work. Not necessarily up front, but it’s always there as an undercurrent. The idea that the world can be better, that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. That is a call that’s running through all of my work, and they’ve exploited that in a really good way.

LACAMOIRE One of the songs we use is “Invisible Sun.” The original version has this inherent darkness to it — it’s very minor, it’s very sinister. But the lyric that we wanted to highlight was “There has to be an invisible sun, that gives us hope when the whole day’s done.” And that actually became the mantra of our version. So rather than having it be these dark grays, all of a sudden we had these lights, these sparkles of yellows and oranges. It felt more like a sunrise. I love that Sting was gracious enough to let us play with the songs in the way that we were able to serve them to a different kind of story.

What has it been like to see these songs come to life in new ways?

LACAMOIRE I love the timelessness of the music, knowing that some of these songs were written decades ago. And they still have meaning and they still have power.

STING I always love it when other artists take my work and somehow expand it or translate it into a different form. I’m always surprised by it. I’m always heartened by it. Sometimes I hear and see things that I hadn’t anticipated at all. So I never argue with people when they say they have an interpretation of a song which is different to mine.

Songs are emotional touchstones. When other people have emotional touchstones that are my songs, I feel like I’m doing a good job.

There is a lot of pain, conflict and cynicism in the world right now, and displacement is rampant. Do you think that art can make a difference?

PRINCE I’m not a politician. I’m not trying to do that. But I am trying to put a piece of myself and how I feel in the work. I hope that it encourages compassion for other people.

STING Art certainly can’t solve the problem overnight. We don’t really have solutions. But we are saying, “These are people. They are us. Listen to their story.” And I think human beings evolve through narrative. We evolved through telling each other stories — hearing, listening. I don’t know any other way.

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