Echoes of Sting

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Associate Choreographer Lukas McFarlane on translating Sting’s music to dance in Message In A Bottle

by Alexander Paredes-Ruíz


Lukas McFarlane (L) and cast of Message In A Bottle; Photo by Lynn Theisen

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You know it the second it comes on. A clean guitar is heard strumming with a piano chord keeping up with the rhythm. A laugh is heard in the distance. The beat drops and the song's highly anticipated, eponymous name is finally said and brought to life — “Roxanne.” A name recognizable by so many, who are not only familiar with the artistry of the 17-time Grammy Award-winning artist Sting but also his narrative prowess. While “Roxanne” may be a standout narrative single in his discography, Sting is no stranger to the worldbuilding of music, often traversing across genres and etching his lyricism into the consciousness and dreams of people over the last forty years.

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Perhaps it's no surprise that Sting’s music finds itself reborn as the dance-theater sensation Message In A Bottle, making its New York debut at City Center for a special two-week run.

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The artist’s most beloved songs, including “Desert Rose” and “Fields of Gold,” are reimagined through the innovative eyes of choreographer Kate Prince and her hip hop company ZooNation, the musical arrangements of Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen) and Martin Terefe, and Associate Choreographer Lukas McFarlane, longtime Sting fan and 2013 winner of the UK and Ireland’s hit TV dance show Got To Dance. They collaborate to the tune of Sting to help tell the story of three siblings from the peaceful fictional village of Bebko embarking on a perilous journey for survival and freedom.

A cold email started it all: a collaboration that lasted over half a decade. Prince, celebrated for her UK dance-theater hit Into the Hoods, reached out to McFarlane with the pitch of creating a show to Sting’s music. “She said, ‘I'm a massive fan of yours and I'd love to have you be a part of this.’ And I was likewise a massive fan of hers. I jumped at the opportunity,” he says.

Differing in dance background, magic sparked between the dance collaborators who worked to fuse Prince’s hip hop funk style with McFarlane’s contemporary work. “The languages of dance that came out in the show creatively were often inspired by the artists that we were creating on,” he explains.

To McFarlane, Prince is a “master storyteller” driven by a collaborative intention-based movement. They worked together to translate the show’s themes of love, resilience, and survival. “We blocked first all the way through without any steps to make sure that our story points were very clear…we made sure we had them in the number where we wanted them musically and all those things. And then we kind of painted in all the steps in after.”

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“Dance is a universal language,” McFarlane says. “[Dance] gets rid of language barrier, it gets rid of words. You’re left with this very authentic, human experience. Emotion, intention, these things can be felt by everyone, no matter what you’re speaking language-wise. It has more impact than sometimes than words do,” he adds.

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The show’s creation process continued beyond its West End premiere in 2019. The remounting of the show has brought new direction to the work that Prince and McFarlane started in 2019, finding relevancy. McFarlane says that “When you redo a cast every time, they breathe new life into it because they're brand-new artists with brand new voices, artistically and what they bring to the characters.”

The camaraderie amongst the touring cast is electric. McFarlane describes how crucial it was for the cast to check in and care for one another before starting the show: “We have a focus circle before every show, which is part of ZooNation’s practice, where you just say a word for the show. When we get backstage, we're all on stage waiting for the crew to come up, everybody always hugs everybody.”


Photo by Lynn Theisen

For McFarlane, “home is where you choose it to be,” looking to his collaborators as a space of comfort and amazement. “I feel like often when I work with people, I’m always like ‘I can’t believe they did that’, even though I know I’m seeing it often. I’m amazed every single night, especially when we have our dancers Harrison Dowzell and Deavion Brown do ‘Shape of My Heart,’” he says.

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To further theatricalize Sting’s legendary discography, the award-winning composer of Hamilton was brought on to breathe new life into Sting’s familiar tunes. “Alex Lacamoire did the arrangements for the tracks and pulled out certain lyrics or moments, stripping them back so that you really get to hear his voice and what he's saying” explains McFarlane.

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Sting’s music remains timeless in its invitation to think through the human experience, transcending generations, and people from around the world. Message In A Bottle offers a glimpse into the world inspired by Sting’s music to paint a picture of hope and possibility, leaving audiences with the question: what is your message in a bottle?

Alexander Paredes-Ruíz is a Chicago-based cultural worker, artist-scholar, writer, and BIPOC Critics Lab alumnus.

Message In A Bottle

Apr 30 – May 12, 2024

Featuring 27 of Sting’s most beloved songs, this dance-theater sensation by Kate Prince and ZooNation opened to rave reviews on London’s West End and makes its New York debut here at City Center.

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