Message In A Bottle: 3D pictures of the songs of Sting

When British choreographer Kate Prince hears music, she always sees matching movement. This is what happened when she listened to The Police’s Walking on the Moon, resulting in Message In A Bottle, a 2020 dance piece based on entirely Sting’s music. Performed by her acclaimed Sadlers’ Wells-based company ZooNation, it’s about the emotional rollercoaster of a family forced to become refugees.

Kate Prince. Photo: Sarah Weal.

When Prince married her husband in 2016, ZooNation members performed four of the couple’s favourite songs. “My husband and I are both atheists,” she tells me via Zoom, so we had Walking on the Moon as a hymn, which the whole congregation had to sing. Then when we were away on our honeymoon I was listening to the song on my headphones, and I said to my husband quite casually, ‘I bet you I can make a show out of his music.’”

When she wrote one of her regular emails to her Sadler’s Wells boss, Alistair Spalding, she added a postscript asking about the viability obtaining the rights to Sting’s music. Two months later she was in a hotel lobby with Sting and his manager, pitching the merest kernel of an idea. She told him that just as it would be difficult for him to describe one of his songs that she’d never heard, so it was hard for her to describe the proposed choreography.

Sting gave his blessing to a two-week workshop, and a snippet of lyric from They Dance Alone inspired the subject matter. “Those lyrics made me think about what people go through for the chance of a free life,” Prince says, “and the people they lose along the way, or the people who they’ve left behind who die…

Above and top: Message In A Bottle. Photos: Lynn Theisen.

“It could be anywhere,” she says of the setting. “I’m never trying to be preachy. I’m not a politician. It’s not my job to do that. But I am aware that people who are not kind to refugees – who don’t want them here – don’t think about the fact that it could happen to any of us.”

Attending the workshop, Sting was moved to tears watching the fierce demands made on the dancers’ bodies by the breakdancing and physical floor work – a ZooNation hallmark. “He’d never seen what one of his songs looked like,” Prince observes. “It was people presenting his music back to him in 3D. He was really moved by it.”

Given the green light, she embarked on “a deep dive” into all she could learn about refugees, and remembers her husband finding her sitting on the sofa crying. Asked what was the matter, she replied, “I’m working!” “It was so brutal to just submerge yourself in these stories,” she says, “because it’s all true. It’s not just adapting a work of fiction.” Solidifying her responses was the famed photograph of drowned toddler Alan Kurdi, looking merely asleep when washed up on a Turkish beach. “My daughter was that age at the time,” says Prince, “and she was sleeping upstairs in her nice bedroom in our home in London, and it was all very safe. And there was this little boy. Your parents don’t put you on a boat and risk your life for fun. They’re doing it because what they face at home is not safe.”

Alex Lacamoire. Photo: Sweetlips Photography.

Such was Sting’s enthusiasm that his management made available the stems – the unmixed recordings of individual instruments – for every song Prince wanted from his solo albums. This allowed musical director Alex Lacamoire – also the world-wide music supervisor for Hamilton – to cast some songs in a slightly new light, while not sacrificing their familiarity.

Unable to gain this access to the Police material, they rerecorded the relevant songs with Sting singing, and Lacamoire was stunned by his vocals. “We needed Sting to rerecord his vocals for Roxanne,” he recounts, “and we recorded it in the original key. Now you have to remember that Roxanne was recorded in 1978, so we’re talking almost 50 years since that recording, and Sting could still hit those high notes. He made a joke about the effort, but it seemed effortless to us!”

Drawing on Sting’s music, Lacamoire also created transitional pieces to link the songs into a continuous score. “That was a really fun thing to do,” he says, “using chord progressions, melodies and motifs from other songs and creating mash-ups.”

Describing herself as “a guest in the house of hip hop”, Prince began her choreography career with pop groups, before forming ZooNation with like-minded artists whose background was in street dance, hip hop, breakdancing and pop culture. “But there wasn’t a natural path for these people to be dance artists in their own right,” she says. “There wasn’t the Royal Hip Hop Company!”

Message In A Bottle: Sydney Opera House, October 25-29.