This collaboration between Kate Prince’s hip-hop dance company ZooNation and singer-songwriter Sting is as successful as it is surprising. The judicious selection of songs woven together with a narrative thread by Lolita Chakrabarti turns what might have been just another jukebox dance ‘musical’ into a conceptual stage show of unusual depth.
The story involves a family of refugees fleeing from a country riven by civil war and making a perilous sea crossing to a land where they discover a different kind of hostility. The dance and the songs are mutually nourishing, King of Pain becomes a cri de coeur for the dispossessed, while Message in a Bottle blossoms from a song about a lovelorn loner into an epic plea thrown out to the world for salvation as well as a symbol of the human debris “washed up on the shore”.
Each song conveys part of the narrative, from life at their idyllic home (Desert Rose) through burgeoning romance (Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic) to the alienated feeling of a stranger in a strange land (Englishman in New York).
Although based on hip hop, Prince’s choreography willingly embraces other forms, cohabiting harmoniously with jazz, tap, ballet and even indigenous tribal dance. The seamless transition from one scene/song to another through skilled lighting and effective marshalling of sets is further enhanced by the use of projections, graphics and sound design. Civil war is represented by lights behind the audience rather than on stage as the ensemble cowers and jerks in fear.
The sharp, violent gestures of street dance Krump relay the bottled anguish, fear and anger of people thrown into confusion and exile through no fault of their own; the fluid lines of a traditional pas de deux are blurred into modernism in an exquisite male duet. The element of alienation is readily suggested by a man dodging and weaving his way through mask-wearing creatures on a city street.
The sophisticated lighting and superb projections enhance and illuminate the storytelling, especially those sequences involving shadow dancing and silhouettes, particularly in the sad/funny sequence The Bed’s Too Big Without You, which is an extraordinarily intricate combination of dance, graphics and set. Other notable scenes include a terrifying storm at sea evoked by a combination of graphics and movement while red-lit boxes and acrobatic contortions bring Roxanne to vivid life. As the story progresses, the colour palette drains from vivid pastels to monochrome greys.
The songs are all familiar, of course, and Sting has re-recorded some of them to align with the narrative as well as employing guest vocalists including Beverley Knight and Lynval Golding of the Specials to heighten the impact and support the storytelling, making for a memorable night.