The Jungle Book – reimagined

The Jungle Book – reimagined

Michaela Preiner

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July 2022

With "Jungle Book reimagined", Akram Khan created a story of Rudyard Kipling's classic that has been revised in terms of content. Designed as a great dance spectacle, it is sure to conquer the stages of the world.

Who doesn’t know the story of the foundling Mowgli, who grows up among animals in the Indian jungle? That story by Rudyard Kipling, which was filmed as an animated film at the Disney Studios?

Now there is “Jungle Book reimagined” by Akram Khan. The Austrian premiere took place as part of the Impulstanz festival at the Burgtheater. The British dancer and choreographer, whose family comes from Bangladesh, played Mowgli in an Indian dance performance as a young boy. This memory, but above all “the three profound lessons of the play”, as he calls it, made such a deep impression on him that now, after many years, he is staging a newly interpreted Jungle Book with his company. The main plot of the story remains more or less the same, but in his version “Mowgli” is a girl who is separated from her family due to an environmental disaster. She is portrayed tenderly and fragilely, but in the end strong and full of hope for her future, by Pui Yung Shum. Like her male role model, she too spends time among animals who take care of her, only to ultimately set out again in search of humans.

Many of Akram Khan’s productions deal with the disastrous state of our world. The confrontation with what has been and is still being destroyed on our earth is one of his central themes. And so his story also begins with a wild doomsday scenario. Rising waters, sinking, destroyed cities, people fleeing on rafts, all this becomes visible on stage through computer-animated drawings. Although they were originally planned only for reasons of economy and to minimise the environmental impact instead of a haptic stage set, Miriam Buether’s depictions contribute significantly to the success of the evening. Delicate and at the same time expressive, full of poetry and yet real, she created a world of memory and current events at the same time. Flying birds, singing whales, leaves falling to the ground – all of these set the action in changing environments without much reconstruction. The use of this technique on stage and in dance is not new, but it is used excessively here. So much so that at certain points one imagines oneself in London’s West End or in a Broadway production.

However, Khan’s Jungle Book – contrary to all dance conventions – does not do without language. Rather, it is just as central a component of the production as the visuals. The text, adapted to the present day, was written by Tariq Jordan. The voices of the individual characters, such as Bagheera the panther or Baloo the bear, come from the tape. The fascinating thing is that every single dance movement is carried and supported by these voices. This combination, through the use of individual movement patterns, reinforces the recognisability of the figures. The dialogues of the individual animals are repeatedly replaced by pure dance numbers, underpinned by a coherent sound. It is a joy to watch Holly Vallis as Bagheera sneaking lithely around Baloo or Mowgli. It’s just fun when Tom Davis-Dun mimes the “dancing bear” and gets completely out of hand. The fact that there is nothing to fear from the snake Kaa is also wonderfully solved and will appeal especially to young audiences.

The compositions show strong borrowings from the most diverse origins. Whether Philip Glass’ “Koyaanisqatsi – which he created for the film of the same name by Godfrey Reggio, or whether it is broad symphonic rock interpretations – as known from Vangelis, whether quotations from a Christian Kyrie Eleison or sounds like from a world music album – the English composer Jocelyn Pook drew from the full for her soundtrack. Her compositions are catchy and support the action in a highly emotional way, just like a good film score.

The fleet of animals looking after Mowgli is bathed in dramatic red, then again in cool blue through changing lighting. The movements of the monkeys, the panther and the bear imitate their gait or even boisterous behaviour. But when they want to behave like humans, they dance, as we know from contemporary productions. Mowgli herself remains an observer for long stretches, intervenes kauf. At her side is often the “monkey outcast”. He is danced frighteningly, unfathomably, but also full of empathy by Max Revell. Greta Thunberg’s “how dare you are!” – from her 2019 speech to the United Nations, but also mountains of cardboard boxes as distributed by online giants across the world to people addicted to consumption, are just two of several references to the problematics that seem to be sheerly overwhelming us at the moment.

Despite all the doomsday mood and gloomy outlook, Akram Khan hopes that his production will also be visited by children. To confront them with what we call “everyday life”, he thinks, is necessary. Above all, however, it is the three teachings mentioned earlier that are important to him to pass on. The teaching of the community of species, the interdependence of humans, animals and nature, and the importance of family and our human need to belong.

The choreographer has a knack for great productions. The spectacle created by his company and a large number of co-producers will, in all likelihood, conquer the world’s great stages. The fact that it will also inspire many people for contemporary dance who have not previously had an affinity for dance is a side effect that should not be underestimated.
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