On a rainy night in Los Angeles, I made my way to the Hollywood Pantages Theater to see “Message in A Bottle” a new work from British Director/Choreographer Kate Prince set to the iconic music of Sting. The hardship and suffering of refugees forced to leave their homeland is the premise for this nearly two-hour dance marathon.
Act One utilizes thirteen Sting songs, edited, added to and or rearranged, as a form of narration and underscore for the action onstage. The versatile set design by Ben Stones along with expert Video design by Andzej Goulding quickly brings us into the world of these soon to be displaced people. We are introduced to the family, (no individual credits are noted in the program) two parents and three older children just as the oldest son has found true love and a joyous wedding takes place. However, happiness is ephemeral as they are invaded by the dark forces of political upheaval. The father is killed, the new wife is taken hostage and the mother and children must flee. They find a ramshackle boat that will take them on but, during the tumultuous crossing, a storm causes the drowning death of the mother and the imprisonment of the remaining boat-people. All of this action is told through dance and every move is set and danced with sincere ferocity.
This is a clever show in many ways. Ms. Prince has combined hip hop, breaking, contemporary jazz and acrobatics to tell her story. The staging is varied and appropriate, the storytelling is clear, and the set and props are well used. However, as much as the choreography deserves accolades for inventiveness and rigor it becomes overwhelming in its’ non-stop assault on the senses. Everything is at full pitch throughout and any attempt at subtlety is lost and therefore interest wanes. The Sting tunes are brilliant, yet problematically the tempo of each varies little from one song to the next and this adds to the monotony.
In Act Two, the action/dancing is again underscored or perhaps over-scored to another sixteen tracks by Sting and again the tempos feel similar. In this act we see the struggle of each of the lost children as they suffer abuse, futility and the hopelessness of their situation. Finally released each finds healing through love. For the young daughter it is through an open and accepting commune which brings a South Seas calmness for a moment of respite. The middle son finds love within a new relationship with a fellow traveler and this pas de duet is lovely as it allows us another moment to breathe. And finally, the older son and his young wife are reunited after he finds her in a brothel where she has been forced to work. Unfortunately, this reunification should be slow and sensuous as the lovers comfort each other after so much loss but instead falls into the trap of “too much” movement, constant lifts and too many tricks.
Ms. Prince is a force to be reckoned with, the recipient of many awards and now the prestigious collaboration of the renowned artist Sting. This story of refugees is important to our understanding of the world as we descend into more and more political, climate and displacement chaos. It is laudable that Ms. Prince and her collaborators have taken on such a hefty and timely subject. However, some judicious editing along with less emphasis on steps and more allowance for quiet character building and perhaps even a dash of humor would bring this show from merely entertaining to importantly meaningful.
Praise must be given to the versatile company dancers who gave their all, all of the time.
To see the full season at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre and to purchase tickets, please visit their website.
Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Musical “Message in a Bottle” – Photo by Lynn Theisen.