Jungle Book Reimagined

Akram Khan's Jungle Book Reimagined photo by Ambra VernuccioWhat if climate change wiped away the world as we know it leaving animals to rule what remains? This is the grim proposition at the heart of Akram Khan’s stunning new creation, Jungle Book Reimagined, which had its Australian premiere in the Canberra Theatre this week ahead of seasons in Perth, Wellington NZ, Singapore and Adelaide.

British-Bangladeshi choreographer, Akram Khan has built an International reputation for his innovative dance creations, and while he has based this work on Rudyard Kipling’s 130 year-old literary classic, Khan is adamant that this work is not for children or adults, but for everyone.

Khan is renowned for using classics as the basis for his works, but his connection with Kipling’s The Jungle Book is more personal. As a young boy he played the role of Mowgli in an Indian dance production. In this production Mowgli is a girl played by Jan Mikaela Villanueva.

All the other roles, and there are many,  are performed by Maya Balam Meyong, Tom Davis-Dunn, Hector Ferrer, Harry Theadora Foster, Filippo Franzese, Bianca Mikahil, Max Revell, Matthew Sandiford, Elpida Skourou, Holly Vallis, and Lani Yamanaka; the same cast on which the work was created for its world premiere in Leicester in 2022.

For his reinterpretation of Kipling’s story, Khan has approached the story through the lens of today’s children, reasoning that they will be the ones who will inherit the world we currently live in. Reimagined as a young refugee, Mowgli, is caught in a world devastated by the impact of climate change.

Most of the action takes place, not in a jungle, but in a dystopian city that has been taken over by animals who try to persuade Mowgli, as the sole surviving human, to teach them how to become human. It’s a grim vision and although essentially a dance work, Khan has surrounded his dancers with remarkable design and technology to realise his concept.

In portraying Kipling’s familiar characters, each dancer is augmented by an extraordinary animated representation. Their interactions are accompanied by recorded voices which narrate Tariq Jordan’s compelling script, while the dancers translate the words into complex choreographed movement.

Akram Khan's Jungle Book ReimaginedAt times the dancers interact and synchronise movements with the animations. Elsewhere the animations dominate; especially at the beginning with a long animated section which sets up the story, featuring images of driving rain, cities being washed away, and refugees, including Mowgli’s family, being washed off rafts.

Particularly memorable are sequences that depict an animal stampede; a flock of doves rescuing the body of one of their number that has been shot; and an extraordinary depiction of a luminescent storm at sea; all performed to a stunning soundscape by Gareth Fry which includes an original score by Jocelyn Pook, the sounds of birds, animals, fierce storms, and surprises like the voice of Greta Thunberg, and even a few bars of Irving King’s 1928 song If I Had You.

But as amazing as these sequences are, ultimately it is the work of Khan’s ten extraordinary dancers that remains in the memory. Khan’s choreography is inventive and beautiful to watch. He draws on his Kathak dance background to create complex sequences in which the use of fingers, arms and feet are interwoven with acrobatic contemporary dance techniques.

His inventive use of his dancer’s bodies to create animal characters, particularly evident in his solos for Baloo the bear, performed by Tom Davis-Dunn and Raksha the tiger, performed by Elpida Skourou, is extraordinary;  and when his dancers perform group passages in perfect unison the effect is simply mesmerising.

Jungle Book Reimagined is an extraordinary creation which defies categorisation. Some might find Khan’s entrenched social messages a bit heavy-handed, although there’s no doubting his passion. Others expecting a technicolour Disney extravaganza might come away bemused.

However if  you are  up for a brilliantly executed, totally original, thought- provoking and spectacular theatrical experience, you will come away richly rewarded.

Jungle Book Reimagined
Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, Canberra
Performance: Saturday 3 February 2024

Jungle Book Reimagined will also be presented at the Perth Festival (9 – 17 February) and the Adelaide Festival (15 – 16 March).

Images: Akram Khan’s Jungle Book Reimagined – photos by Ambra Vernuccio

Review: Bill Stephens OAM