”People like to tell me their opinions,” says the choreographer Kate Prince. “I get letters from punters with critiques of works they’ve seen.” She is bemused and a little narked, past trying to please others. “I have no control over whether my ideas are good or bad; I just have ideas.”
You don’t get to Prince’s position without most of those ideas being good ones. Over the last almost 20 years, Prince and her company ZooNation have cornered the market in heartfelt, feel-good family shows based on hip-hop, street dance and soul music. There was Into the Hoods, in which fairytale characters were transplanted to a London housing estate, then Some Like It Hip-Hop, a gender-swap dramedy loosely based on the Billy Wilder’s film. She has tackled feminist history in Sylvia, about the life of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst (Prince got letters about that one for casting black performers in most of the roles, including Pankhurst and Winston Churchill). Outside ZooNation, she has also worked on hit musicals such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Prince, 47, is so closely associated with hip-hop that her latest idea seems a bit of a curveball: a dance show set to Sting’s music. Not as cool as her usual soundtracks, I joke, but she is having none of it. “Arguably, the Police are one of the coolest bands that have ever existed – have you seen how Sting plays bass?” She smiles. “Also, I don’t care what anyone thinks.”
A Sting fan since she was a child growing up in Hampshire, she mentioned her love of his music to Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, and soon found herself in a meeting with the rock star. “I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been,” she says. “You can’t hide from the fact that someone is super famous.” Sting gave the go-ahead to workshop some songs and came to see the results. “He said it was like his music was being presented back to him in 3D,” Prince says.
Around the same time, a second idea had started to brew. The Syrian refugee crisis was dominating the news and Prince was compelled by the stories she heard, especially the heartbreaking photo of Alan Kurdi, who drowned along with his mother and brother as they tried to reach Europe in September 2015 (her own daughter was an infant at the time). The two ideas collided to form Message in a Bottle, a show about a family forced to flee their home and seek refuge. In it, Sting’s song Invisible Sun, written in Ireland during the Troubles, becomes the story of another place torn apart by conflict; Shadows in the Rain soundtracks refugees trapped at a border wall; They Dance Alone, inspired by the mothers of the disappeared in Pinochet’s Chile, is an anthem of hope and resilience.
Message in a Bottle premiered in February 2020 before being interrupted by Covid. Eighteen months on, the tour is about to resume as a new refugee crisis fills the news. In an east London dance studio, the young cast hone lyrical phrases loaded with emotion and peppered with headspins and elbow freezes. Prince pulls out exacting details, catching a single semiquaver out of place.
Prince was aware that telling something as devastatingly real as a refugee tale on stage through the medium of dance, as a white Englishwoman, could easily hit the wrong notes. “In general, I would say: try to tell your own stories, speak about something that in some way you have experienced,” she says. “But with this, the thing that was my story was how angry I get when people have no compassion for refugees. The idea that people might risk their lives – their children’s lives – and flee their homes. They are fleeing something worse than that risk.”
Every image in the production comes from something real: a photo, a testimony, a film – especially the remarkable documentary Escape from Syria, which follows the tortuous journey to Europe taken by Rania Mustafa Ali, a 20-year-old refugee. Ali saw one of the first shows in London. “She said it made her very emotional but very joyful,” says Prince.
Surprisingly, at the time I talk to Prince, the one person who hasn’t seen the show yet is Sting himself. “The idea of that day terrifies me,” says Prince, who usually doesn’t care what people think – except when it’s Sting.
Message in a Bottle is at Sadler’s Wells, London, to 17 October.