Matthew Paluch sees Message In A Bottle: “one of those important shows that take a prevalent, complex issue and make it accessible and tangible to the masses.”
|Title||Message In A Bottle|
|Company||Sadler's Wells & Universal Music UK production, with ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company|
|Venue||Peacock Theatre, London|
|Date||7 October 2023|
Without stating the obvious, you can tell a lot about a work from the reaction of an audience.
When Message In A Bottle came to a close last night at the Peacock Theatre the crowd went bonkers. Standing ovations aren't the rare circumstance they once were, but even by today's standards people were on their feet in milliseconds.
Message In A Bottle, features the music of Sting to the direction and choreography of Zoo Nation's Kate Prince. Prince and Zoo Nation are known for their narrative, hip-hop-influenced works, and Message In A Bottle promises a “poignant tale of humanity and hope” that addresses “displacement, immigration and survival”.
On paper this isn't my kind of thing… but in reality, I can only heap praise on what Prince, Sting and the entire team have achieved.
The premise is a generic one, yet it's a narrative that could be discussed anywhere at any point and people would understand, empathise and make time for it.
We watch the 10pm news religiously every night we're at home, with the announcements of oppression and the related diaspora causing genuine concern. But when the programme comes to an end we go about our business in the comfort of our safe, quiet home like nothing has really happened.
Prince's Message In A Bottle is one of those important shows that take a prevalent, complex issue and make it accessible and tangible to the masses. Anyone who sees it will likely think twice about such related events when they present themselves again, and recall the specific story and characters they encountered to make the contemplation that much more authentic.
The work is also a superb example of the power of dance. When movement lacks, the first thing one considers is how much more successful a creation could be with the addition of text. However, when a choreographer gives a dancer movement that conveys narrative beyond word, the impact can't be equalled. It's a bewildering thing to witness.
Message In A Bottle centres around a family who are subjected to an experience they never asked for. Everything they know disappears overnight, followed by tragedy, passage, maltreatment, relocation and a sense of rebirth.
The libretto focuses on three siblings, and how they journey from a beloved home to a completely new world, and one that offers danger, foreign places, and humankind that ranges from evil to good.
The overall design by Ben Stones is a (very tourable!) masterpiece. The minimal, modern set is evocative in a blank canvas kind of way: an ever-present sun/moon that aligns in colour to the mood of the scene being depicted, doorways that open to allow in all manner of people and experiences and freestanding cubes that act as both cell and exit to freedom.
Andrzej Goulding's video projections communicate the most sophisticated level of animation and atmosphere you could ask for, as does Natasha Chivers's stirring lighting design, enhancing any environment the story takes the characters to.
Choreographically Prince is an encyclopaedia. I don't think I had a single ‘seen that already' moment throughout the 100-minute-ish show. Her language has hip-hop underpinning but is a functioning fusion of folk, African, Indian, parkour and contemporary dance styles.
The overtly physical moments are breathtaking, be they a breakdancing dad, huge jumps that don't seem to contemplate landings, or phrases which radiate boundless energy.
Prince's lexicon truly allows the dancers to emote. There's huge skill involved, but none of it is stifled due to aesthetic expectations or codified frameworks. The choreography and the execution of it burgeons from expression, and the associated movement happens to be the digestible fallout rather than the positional intention. Super.
The show also doesn't shy away from the difficult, real-life subject matter that these types of lived experiences will inevitably encounter. Sexual violence, drug addiction, and the exploration of sexuality (the latter being hugely, personally appreciated as a gay man). But Prince encases it all in sophisticated, expressive language, with everything feeling intelligible and apt. She absolutely succeeds where others have gone down abstract, dark holes never to recover.
All of the above would of course have less impact without the 17 Grammy-recognised, musical canon of Sting as its soundtrack and inspiration. Hearing a selection of his music in one sitting highlights the broad range and the power of his lyrics and evocative melodies. I kept pondering how a Geordie lad could inhabit such a vast musical world, but that's for Sting to relish and for me to keep musing over.
After the London run the production tours extensively to Europe, Australia and America, and I'm impressed when considering how many people this significant production will impact. And as a dance lover I'm overjoyed it is movement doing all the talking.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.