‘Message in a Bottle’ is a Sting dance show at the Kennedy Center

When it comes to the music of Sting, choreographer and director Kate Prince lets her soul be her pilot.

An acclaimed hip-hop dance maker, Prince is also one of the rocker’s longtime fans. So even though Sting is associated not with hip-hop but with pop hits that draw on jazz and world music — not to mention the reggae-, punk- and New Wave-tinged earworms of his former band the Police — Prince could not resist choreographing a dance-theater show to his music.

The result is “Message in a Bottle,” a production that uses impassioned and athletic dance — popping, waacking, breaking and more — and tunes like “King of Pain” to tell a story about a refugee family. The piece bears witness to Prince’s conviction that Sting’s crowd-pleasing songs support substantive narrative and different terpsichorean modes.

The music “covers so many different emotions” and is “so rich in rhythm, in instrumentation,” she points out. It provides a choreographer “the opportunity to do so many different styles of movement, styles of storytelling. It’s not all same-y, is it? Everything’s a different texture.”

In the production, running at the Kennedy Center from April 9-21, the dancers depict a family’s flight from war in an unnamed country and subsequent travels. To songs like “Every Breath You Take” and “Fields of Gold,” the performers channel the anguish of fear and loss, the frustration of detention, and the exhilaration of love and finding a new home. While the story can be somber, audiences leave the show with “wonder and awe at what the dancers have achieved,” says Prince, who is artistic director of the hip-hop-influenced dance troupe ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company.

The 49-year-old choreographer remembers gravitating to the Police when she was growing up in the south of England. More recently, she included the Police song “Walking on the Moon” in the playlist for her wedding.

Not long after, she broached the idea of a Sting-scored show to Sadler’s Wells, the London dance hub where ZooNation is a resident company. Sting gave the idea a green light, and Sadler’s Wells became a producer of “Message” with Universal Music UK.

Prince wanted the show to reflect on the global refugee crisis — not a stretch, given Sting’s socially conscious songs (like the refugee-themed “Inshallah”), activism and interest in world music. Plunging into research about displaced people, she found herself haunted by the much-seen 2015 photograph of Alan Kurdi, a child who drowned while his family was fleeing Syria. “My very privileged life in London was so miles apart from this little boy,” and yet “I couldn’t stop thinking about him,” Prince remembers.

Her refugee-centered story wasn’t an intuitive match for certain essential songs. “There are famous songs of Sting’s that if I hadn’t included them in the show, fans — like myself — would be disappointed,” Prince says. So she strove to integrate those hits without making them seem to “have been shoehorned in.” “Englishman in New York” is woven into the production in a way that emphasizes not the eponymous Brit or Big Apple, but rather the empowering line “Be yourself, no matter what they say.”

Primarily because Prince was determined to feature Sting’s distinctive voice in the production (“I don’t want to hear someone else sing ‘Roxanne’!”), “Message” employs a recorded soundtrack. Alex Lacamoire — winner of Tony Awards for orchestrating “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” and co-orchestrating “In the Heights” — created new arrangements of Sting’s songs, working with collaborators including music producer and arranger Martin Terefe.

Sting laid down some vocals specifically for the production, which premiered in London in February 2020. The music also incorporates freshly recorded instrumentals, tracks from preexisting recordings and guest vocals. Lacamoire, 48, says creating the arrangements was a delightful puzzle, even if “boring legal logistics” were a factor when choosing what to use. “When you have an isolated track of Sting singing ‘King of Pain,’ and you get to construct an entire track around that, it’s like asking a potter to craft something from the finest gold on the planet,” he says.

He fine-tuned sonic colors and textures with an eye to tone and storytelling. For example, “Invisible Sun” — a 1981 Police song that originally reflected on the Troubles in Northern Ireland — sounds more optimistic in “Message,” Lacamoire says, because he altered the underlying chords. Whereas the original song was dark, “our version dips into a little bit more reds and oranges and yellows,” he says.

Such musical adjustments, like the kinetic dance, support the show’s portrait of people surviving trauma and building new lives. “Ultimately, it is uplifting,” Prince says. “It is a story of hope.”

‘Message in a Bottle’

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

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