Message in a Bottle

Sadler’s Wells and Universal Music UK, Directed and choreographed by Kate Prince. Based on the songs of Sting. Joan Sutherland Theatre Sydney Opera House. 25-29 November, 2023.

Reviewed : 26 October, 2023

Photo : Daniel Boud

Message in a Bottle comes from the UK to make its Australian premiere as part of the 50th birthday celebrations of the Opera House. Based on the music of iconic singer-songwriter Sting and choreographed by Kate Prince, it is an incredibly moving piece of dance theatre that pays homage to the millions of displaced people in the world today, refugees from harsh rule and devasting war seeking shelter and solace and a new, safe place to re-start their lives.

Photo : Daniel Boud

Choreographed and directed by Kate Prince, the twenty performers tell in interpretative dance the story of a family of four living in a gentle, happy community that is beset by civil war. Forced to flee, they wander for a time ultimately finding shelter in a refugee camp, before risking a perilous journey in an open boat where their “anxious eyes, search in darkness, with the rising of the sea. Incarcerated in a detention camp, watched over by heartless guards, they wait for years hoping “one day we’ll sing our freedom”. Time and loneliness haunt them, until, finally they are given a new chance in a safer land to “lie in fields of gold ”.

Photo : Daniel Boud

Their saga of fear, loss, survival, hope and love is told clearly through the simple clarity of Sting’s beautiful lyrics, with his music providing the various tempos for choreography that includes contemporary hip hop/street dance styles with breaking, locking and popping. Produced by ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company, it is fast, powerful, mesmerising and emotionally expressive.

Though the themes of interpretative dance are clear, it is sometimes a little difficult to follow the intricacies of the story. Not so with Message in a Bottle. Each song introduces a new chapter to the story, with the dancers adding graphic imagery and emotion through movement and dramatic, descriptive physicality. Using columns of side lights, fixed spots and some moving spots, rather than lighting from the front, designer Natasha Chivers highlights the complex sophistication of the movement and the transition from one scene to the next.

Photo : Daniel Boud

Set designer Ben Stone is similarly subtle, realising that the suggestion of a scene is sufficient – but making those suggestions perceptively poignant.  A circular mat is centred for a wedding celebration, then moved, as war rages to receive the sand that bleeds from “a little black hole in the sun”. Bed rolls carried by the asylum seekers become the sides of their crowded boat, and a live wall with images of increasingly large waves crashes behind them. Moveable frames become their detention ‘prison’ backed by images of barbed wire on high walls.

The twenty dancers –  Oliver Andrews, Lindon Barr, David Cottle, Deavion Brown, Harrison Dowzell, Nestor Garcia Gonzalez, Natasha Gooden, Lizzie Gough, Anna Holström, Megan Ingram, Ajani Johnson-Goffe, Daniella May, Dylan Mayoral, Lukas McFarlane, Robbie Ordona, Lara Renaud, Hannah Sandilands, Jessey Stol, Steven Thompson and Malachi Welch – bring Kate Prince’s production to Sydney for four short days. If you love dance, especially contemporary dance, try and see this production.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine