Everything once understood about the favored tale, The Jungle Book, was left at the door in Akram Khan Company’s Jungle Book Reimagined, which made its US premiere at Santa Monica’s BroadStage this past Thursday night. The cast of dancers, animators, producers, directors, voice actors, lighting and sound engineers reconceptualized The Jungle Book in an urban environment to bring light to the ongoing climate change and harshness our world faces by the turnover of human corruption. Writer, Tariq Jordan, and choreographer, Akram Khan, wanted to shed light on the fact that we have forgotten we are guests on this planet like everyone and everything else. Using sound bites of Greta Thunberg’s speech from the United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019, an emotional “how dare you!” and “blah blah blah” was one of the many tactics the company used to ground the essence of the performance. The wondrous production made activists out of all of us, and changed our perception of what we think we know about the past, present, and future of our natural world.
With a cast of eleven dancers, Maya Balam Meyong, Tom Davis-Dunn, Harry Theadora Foster, Filippo Franzese, Bianca Mikahil, Max Revell, Matthew Sandiford, Pui Yung Shum, Holly Vallis, Jan Mikaela Villanueva, and Luke Watson delivered not only a technically sound approach to the choreography, but a master class in character development. With the same beloved characters such as Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, Raksha, Rama, and the python Kaa, each artist took on the mannerisms of their portrayed animal.
Act I opened with rain, storms, and animation depictions of a world encompassed by water, stating “sea levels are rising; waters dominate land; and humans scramble for their survival in search for higher ground”. Mowgli, a young girl, falls off a turbulent raft on a stormy sea, and is separated by her family. Carrying only a small mysterious box, she is rescued by the whales, who return her to air and safe ground. Finding herself in a concrete jungle inhabited by animals instead of humans, the wolf pack presents Mowgli to the animal council. Agreeing to protect her, she must prove her worth by finding food, and in return the animals may pick up on some much needed human instincts. With the company of Bagheera, reimagined as a palace raised albino panther, and Baloo, an escaped dancing bear, on their quest for food, Mowgli is taken by the Bandar-log. These lab experiment monkeys need fire to make their dreams of becoming fully human a reality. Since the Bandar-log are animals of the tree world, Bagheera and Baloo seek out Kaa, a feared rock python who still has trauma from years and years of being stuck behind a glass case, and the most feared presence of the tree world.
While each artist represented a different animal, there was no mimicry, only tendencies, flavors of, and movement like, to give the audience the full effect. Narrated by eighteen voice actors, some of which were the dancers themselves, we could hear the internal thoughts and speech of the animals as they interacted with each other. While Mowgli could not understand or speak to the animals, the audience received flashbacks of how she grew up in comic-like drawings and animated visuals; Mowgli learning to hunt, learning to respect what is killed, and being taught the value of shared space on this magnificent planet. It is in these flashbacks that we finally find out that the precious box she holds onto so dearly has a single mirror in its core. For when she opens the box and peers inside, she is reminded that she is all that is needed.
Act II opens with a stale and uncomfortable abandoned government building, overtaken by the Bandar-log who constantly listen to radio jingles, political speeches, and use these provocative and generalized theories of who humans are as their own laws of which to abide by. The Bandar-log has all the characteristics of a monkey, with low to the ground jumping, knuckle forward perches, and extended jaws; however, Akram Khan gave them a radioactive quality. They are constantly twitching as if being struck by an electrical current at any one time, and desperately seeking release in all the wrong places. With the help of Kaa, Baloo and Bagheera saved Mowgli just as she’s about to create fire for the Bandar-log…a most feared human possession. Upon returning to the animal council, Hathi, leader of the elephants, tells the tale of how the jungle was created. In perhaps one of the most moving variations of the performance, the cast bound together, in both animal and human form, to create a unified movement sequence to represent Hathi’s words. The elephant recounts how humans began to take and take, introducing weapons, and becoming owners of nature. That somehow and somewhere in time, humans have forgotten they are guests along with all the other creatures that make our world beautiful. The cast of dancers used techniques found in Khon, a stylized form of Thai dance, the classical Indian art of Bharatanatyam, and even postmodern technique found in that of Lucinda Childs or Trisha Brown. Known for being devoid of narrative, the juxtaposition of a specific narrative to this engaging movement was delightful and absent at the same time.
As a shooter comes into the territory and kills Chil, the watchful eye of the sky and Mowgli’s north star, she realizes she must side with the animals and let nature fight back. Luring the shooter into unstable waters, displayed as a sheet with blue lighting, the water swallows up the hunter and eliminates the most immediate threat to the animals in the area. Jungle Book Reimagined was a beautiful collaboration of older and younger generations coming together to create symbolic art for the masses. It is a hopeful story of pain, anger, regret, but also of hope, freedom, and love. Akram Khan Company delivered poetic movements that could be translated to any stage, or media platform, and for this reason it is meant for the ages.
To learn more about the Akram Khan Company, please visit their website.
To see BroadStage’s full season line- up, please visit their website.
Written by Grace Courvoisier for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Cast of “Jungle Book Reimagined” – Photo by Camila Greenwell.