Sunday, February 4, 2024

Jungle Book Reimagined


Jungle Book Reimagined.  Akram Khan Company presented by Canberra Theatre Centre, February 2-3, 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Feb 2

Director/Choreographer: Akram Khan
Creative Associate/Coach: Mavin Khoo
Dramaturgical Advisor: Sharon Clark
Composer: Jocelyn Pook; Sound Designer: Gareth Fry; Lighting Designer: Michael Hulls;
Visual Stage Designer
: Miriam Buether
Art Direction and Director of Animation: Adam Smith (YeastCulture)
Producer/Director of Video Design: Nick Hillel (YeastCulture)
Rotoscope Artists/Animators: Naaman Azhari, Natasza Cetner, Edson R Bazzarin

Rehearsal Director: Nicky Henshall, Andrew Pan, Angela Towler

Dancers: Maya Balam Meyong, Tom Davis-Dunn, Hector Ferrer, Harry Theadora Foster, Filippo Franzese, Bianca Mikahil, Max Revell, Matthew Sandiford, Elpida Skourou, Holly Vallis, Jan Mikaela Villanueva, and Lani Yamanaka

When theatre is presented as a grandstanding significant work, I must consider if the result achieves a depth of artistic sincerity or is not much more than a self-indulgent display.

The dancers in this production of Jungle Book Reimagined must be praised for their performance of a demanding choreography and presentation of characters, but the show as a whole is a confusing collection of bits and pieces supposedly derived from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.

The book publishers write “First published by Macmillan in 1894, The Jungle Book is the classic collection of animal tales that shows Rudyard Kipling's writing for children at its best. The short stories and poems include the tale of Mowgli, a boy raised by a pack of wolves in the Indian jungle. We meet the tiger Shere Khan, Bagheera, the black panther, Baloo, the 'sleepy brown bear', and the python, Kaa. Other famous stories include the tale of the fearless mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and that of elephant-handler Toomai of the Elephants.”
They also note it is “A collection of Rudyard Kipling's animal stories, wonderfully told and interweaving moral lessons with classic tales.”

Kipling’s story is, of course, entire fantasy – a British Empire story probably vaguely influenced by the story of Romulus described on the History Channel: “Left to drown in a basket on the Tiber by a king of nearby Alba Longa and rescued by a she-wolf, the twins lived to defeat that king and found their own city on the river's banks in 753 B.C. After killing his brother, Romulus became the first king of Rome, which is named for him.”

I’m guessing that’s how the pack of wolves got into the Indian jungle.  As explains: “Indian Wolf - They are less territorial than other wolf species and rarely howl. Unlike Mowgli's wolf family in The Jungle Book, they usually avoid the jungles and stick to the more open areas like grasslands.”

So what is the purpose of  Akram Khan ‘reimagining’ Kipling’s obviously romanticised picture of their Empire for British children in 1894 – with pictures drawn by Kipling’s father in so-called Indian style.  The Canberra Theatre Centre publicises the show, saying “Following seasons throughout the world including Sadlers Wells (London), The Lincoln Centre (New York), Canadian Stage (Toronto) and Theatre de la Ville (Paris) we are thrilled to present this gripping, exquisitely crafted and timely work to you here in Canberra….  It is exciting that this week, the Akram Khan Company will present a masterclass for local dance practitioners.” (Dan Clarke, Head of Programming).

I can’t, therefore, dismiss this show lightly.  Yet, the first comment I overheard at interval, was ‘rather boring’.  That, I’m sure, was not about the dancers’ technical skills or the clever individual characterisations, some quite humorous; but too often group work in the style seen in the program cover (above) was repeated time and time again for no apparent purpose, and with no development of the story.  In Act 2, the story development gathered some pace – but I never felt properly engaged with the central character – the girl, named by the animals as Mowgli, and given the impossible task of proving her superiority among animals as a human – seemingly perhaps the last one left on earth, after defeating the hunter.

I can’t deny Akram Khan’s genuine intentions about the theme of how “climate change is and will continue to affect all living creatures on this beautiful planet” and how “we are now living in unprecedented and uncertain times, not only for our species but for all species on this planet.  And the root cause of this conumdrum is because we have forgotten our connection to our home, our planet.  We all inhabit it, and we all build on it, but we have forgotten to return our respect for it.”  And about “the lessons of commonality between species, the binding interdependence between humans, animals and nature, and finally, a sense of family and our need to belong.”

But there is a terrible irony in the design of Jungle Book Reimagined.  The most effective aspects, theatrically, are in the sound effects and the original approach to visuals.  Since COVID-19 lockdown, Khan writes, “I have come to appreciate technology [which] allowed me to stay connected with my loved ones, my artistic team and the wider world.  Without the use of technology, I would have felt truly alone.”

The irony is that the living performances of the dancers take place behind screens (though transparent) where remarkable moving images of all sorts from elephants, giraffes, birds and even mice take all our attention, while the choreography, often in stylised representation of the animals, never takes us fully into feeling a sense of human or animal family.

In the end, the final image of the drama is defeatist.  Despite the dancing in unison seen in the first program image above, the program also shows the image below, representing what we saw full size on the backdrop screen ending the performance.


The image of Mowgli, at the edge of an endless sea, becomes a video of her climbing back on a raft of human-made metal drums or boxes, like the one that saved her from the climate-change induced floods at the beginning of the show.  As she begins to float to nowhere towards a blank horizon, the show ends.

Mowgli, the superior human, has failed to fulfil the hopes of the animals.  She may have used human technology to kill the hunter, and like Prospero who breaks his magic wand in The Tempest, she destroys the gun.  

But, if human technology saves the theatrical show, it shows us Mowgli left truly alone.  

And it left me feeling the technology had taken precedence over the living dancers.  Yet Akram Khan writes “We must not forget that most often, great storytelling can be told by the simplest of tools.  Our bodies, our voices, and our conviction in that story.”  

I agree – but the show became a display of complex technology without the warmth of humanity that dance is really all about.  What is the moral lesson here?