“Message in a Bottle” is dance at its finest with a serious story to tell

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The cast on stage standing in a group holding a woman up in the air.
Message in a Bottle (Photo by Helen Maybanks)
The full cast on stage standing in a group
Message in a Bottle (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

Kate Prince, Artistic Director of ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company, has created a new two-act work, Message in a Bottle, set to music by Sting and making an appearance at the New York City Center. It is an exciting, moving piece about an unlikely topic: refugees. The troupe offers the best dancing currently in New York, and Message in a Bottle is not only a must-see show, it is a have-to-see show.

The story takes place in an unnamed land. A group of peaceful villagers go about their daily lives in an atmosphere of harmony. We mostly follow a group of five — a family unit, mother, father, two sons, and a daughter, leaders of the community — as they go about their lives. A distant thunderous boom interrupts the marriage celebration of the eldest son; as the sound repeats, getting closer, we realize it is artillery fire. Soon enough, death rains on the village, and the townsfolk gather their belongings and start a long march to find refuge. War — and we never know what kind it is or why it’s happening — eventually separates parents from children, husbands from wives, and the villagers from each other.

An entire people’s rituals and customs, their games and playfulness, their triumphs and tragedies, come alive. The company’s dance movements seem as if they are spontaneous creations. Yet you know such ease of movement, such sheer heartbreaking beauty, only comes from the hours of meticulous rehearsal and improvisation a work like this requires.

The performers are not listed in the playbill by the characters they play. Yet for their talent they deserve individual mention:  Oliver Andrews; Lindon Barr; Deavion Brown; David Cottle; Harrison Dowzell; Nestor Garcia Gonzalez; Natasha Gooden; Lizzie Gough; Megan Ingram; Alani Johnson-Goffe; Charlotte Lee; Daniella May; Dylan Mayoral; Serena McCall; Lukas McFarlane; Nethra Menon; Robbie Ordona; Lara Renaud; Hannah Sandilands; Jessey Stol; Steven Thompson; Gavin Vincent; and Malachi Welch.

Sting’s music sets the emotional mood of the dance story. Standout numbers include “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and “Fields of Gold” for the wedding; “King of Pain” and “Invisible Sun” as warfare shatters the villagers’ life; “Every Breath You Take” as the siblings try to maintain contact in a barbed-wire fenced camp; and “Message in a Bottle” as the villagers are marched off to other camps. Songs such as “Brand New Day”, “Walking on the Moon”, “Englishman in New York”, “Roxanne”, and “They Dance Alone” take on new meanings without contradicting your memories of them.

The evocatively stunning set was designed by Ben Stones, with video design by Andrzej Goulding, lighting by Natasha Chivers, sound by David McEwan, and ingenious costumes by Anna Fleischle. Together the design team has created a place where words are not needed to realize the story coming to life through the brilliance of the ensemble and Kate Prince’s direction and choreography.

Message in a Bottle is an unprecedentedly excellent work, one that is — though I hesitate to use the cliche — a modern classic. It speaks to our time like a legend from the past. It is the history that gets repeated because it has not been learned. It is an emotional journey. It is the art of dance at its most exhilarating. I cannot more strongly urge you to see Message in a Bottle before its brief run ends.

Message in a Bottle is presented by ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company at the New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, through May 12th, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to nycitycenter.org or call 212-581-1212.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.