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‘Message in a Bottle’ tells a refugee family’s survival story through dance to the music of Sting

Kate Prince choreographed the show, coming to Emerson Colonial next week. ‘I’m a conduit between music and dance because I do both,’ she said.

Kate Prince choreographed "Message in a Bottle" to the music of Sting.Lynn Theisen/Helen Maybanks

Kate Prince, the award-winning British choreographer, teamed with multiple-Grammy winning musician Sting to create “Message in a Bottle.” Featuring 28 songs written over five decades and freshly recorded mostly by Sting, the nearly two-hour dance and music tour de force charts the story of a war-torn refugee family battling hardship, and ultimately prevailing. Currently touring North America, “Message in a Bottle” opens in Boston on Tuesday at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. Prince, who founded London-based hip hop dance troupe ZooNation, spoke to the Globe via Zoom from her home outside London about how the show came to be.

Q. Sting’s “Desert Rose” from 1999 was a catalytic song for “Message in a Bottle.” What did you find compelling about this song that provided the vision of a family torn apart by brutal invasion?


A. As soon as I heard the song “Desert Rose,” I knew the story I was trying to tell. It’s the opening song of the show, a song of celebration, and praying for the rains to come. I wanted to start the story in a peaceful, recognizable environment. Wherever we are in the world, we can all relate to family. We can all relate to a village, friends, and community. I wanted to first build the community and build the family before the problems started to crack it. “Desert Rose” just does its part. It’s got an amazing energy, rhythms, lovely texture, and vocals.

Q. In addition to choreographing, you’re a pianist. How does your musicianship inform the way you approached Sting’s music?

A. We have an amazing process working with a music team. We were given Sting’s original album recordings so that we could isolate and listen to every single instrument. I’m a conduit between music and dance because I do both. I’ll break down instrumentation, and I’ll say, I want this one to feel like a really naked track. I just want a cello, or what would it sound like if we took it down to strings or pulled the brass up so that we can make this more of a funk track? The music team are the ones who do the magic and work out how that practically works. Having written other musicals it helps me understand that process and the language.


Q. You auditioned more than 800 dancers your first go round for the show. Of the 800, you chose two.

A. We’ve done more big open auditions since the show has been recast. I would say 1,500 have probably auditioned and you’re looking at a company of 14 dancers on stage and seven off stage, and we rotate the cast every night. Some of the dancers in the cast know three different characters. Depending on the day of the week, they’ll play a different part. There’s always seven dancers resting.

I’ve met incredible dancers from around the world I would never have met unless we had auditioned. Each of them brings something of so much value to the storytelling of the company, ZooNation.

"Message in a Bottle" is at Emerson Colonial from March 26-30.Helen Maybanks

Q. What do you look for in a dancer?

A. A great dancer is someone who appears to be liberated by what they are doing. Someone who is free. There’s so much you can do in dance without words. There’s so much story that can be expressed without saying a single word. It’s really those storyteller dancers that I’m interested in.


Q. How did you come to dancing?

A. I found the piano and I found dancing really young, but particularly dancing. There was nothing else. It was like an eclipse. Nothing, nothing comes close. It’s all I ever wanted, but I was never a great dancer. I always wanted to be behind the scenes. I love figuring it all out, piecing it together, the jigsaw of how it works.

Q. The first half of “Message in a Bottle” appears kaleidoscopic in the ways you move the dancers about the stage. You group them inventively, as you highlight one or two dancers who carry the story. Would you talk a little about your choreographic choices for Act I and II?

A. The first act just runs, it just flows. The story builds up, builds up, and builds up momentum. The three protagonists are mainly on stage, but the youngest protagonist is the character who doesn’t leave the stage at all. Wherever she’s gone, we stay with her. With each number, I’m trying to bring a new look and a new breath and a new life and a new texture, but it all needs to keep flowing because it’s a linear journey. It just takes you forward.

In Act II they jump forward and backward in time in three completely different locations. Each time they enter a new world. And that world is receiving them in very different ways. For Act II, I wanted to build a boxed-in set so we don’t have any visible wings that they can exit and enter from. A lot of the time they are sealed into the set. Sometimes an exit is purposeful but sometimes it’s quite secret. I wanted to create a world where they feel trapped metaphorically in the situation. They can’t get out. I wanted the set to invade the space and move around and divide up the space.


Every country is divided really. People are divided. There are lots of generous people, and then there are people who say, “Get out, don’t come here.” “Message in a Bottle” is trying to show the different responses that you can have. I don’t think of myself as being any kind of political voice. I suppose I just make stuff that I care about.

Interview has been edited and condensed.


At Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St., March 26-30, including Fri. and Sat. matinees. $49-$164. 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com