Akram Khan: 'Listen Well'.
Akram Khan is bringing his world famous company to Australia. He talks to Rhys Ryan about his production, 'Junglebook reimagined'.
"Listen well. We start listening when we stop waiting to speak.”
A pause, then Akram Khan repeats himself: we start listening when we stop waiting to speak. I hear him, but it takes several moments for the gravity of his words to land. The pithiness is disarming; a rare moment in life when we stumble upon true wisdom.
I am deep into a meandering conversation with the British-Bangladeshi choreographer when the maxim arises. It crops up in the context of something quite pedestrian: the distractibility of his young children and the challenge of competing with a screen for their attention. He reflects on his own childhood, recalling he was “never a good talker” and often unsure of what to say. His solution was to listen to others. And listen well.
It's a simple mantra that serves as both a moral principle and artistic manifesto for the critically acclaimed choreographer. Khan’s work is rooted in storytelling – the stories of self, of others, of all of us. To tell them, he often looks to the past, realising that we must listen to our ancestors if we are to make sense of the present.
A survey of Khan’s body of work reveals the grandness of his chosen narratives. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, stories from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the histories of non-white colonial soldiers in World War I and, more recently, some of the major fictions of the Western canon, like Giselle and Frankenstein. Across all, Khan uncovers a timelessness, finding enduring themes buried within ancient myths.
It comes as little surprise, then, that his latest project dives deep into the pages of a 130-year-old literary classic, The Jungle Book. Rudyard Kipling’s famed collection of stories chronicle the adventures of Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. The youngster’s wild and lawless encounters with a cast of animals offer musings on authority and freedom, abandonment and fostering.
For Khan, the book has been on his “bucket list” of famous writers to tackle, alongside Shakespeare and Arthur Miller. But it also has personal significance, tracing back to his youth. At the age of 10, Khan performed the lead role of Mowgli in an Indian classical dance production that toured England. The young dancer remembers jumping at the chance after seeing Disney’s animation of The Jungle Book and immediately identifying with the protagonist.
“I still remember the feeling when I saw it. I thought, hang on, that’s a brown boy playing the lead character and he looks like me!” recalls Khan. “I had never seen that in any other Disney movies or manga or DC comic books, especially not as a hero. So it was a great moment for me as a young performer to be part of that production. Ever since then, it’s been a piece I wanted to tackle as a choreographer.”
Fast forward several decades, and the father-of-two has other big issues weighing on his mind. For Khan, climate change is one of the great modern crises, something which he believes stems from a rupture in our relationship to nature.
“The saying ‘let’s get out of town and visit nature’ has always made me uncomfortable because, for me, nature is not a place to visit. It’s home. We live in nature. This separation between nature and modern civilisation – of trying to take command over nature – has often struck me as a problem.”
In his years of researching mythology, Khan has always noted the deep connection between humans and nature reflected in those tales. Nowadays, that harmony with the environment seems very absent.
“I think we as adults address climate change very differently to our children. The next generation is inheriting this world and the climate is one of the biggest things on their minds. They are trying to reverse this thinking that humans have control over nature. My own kids are always talking about it, and that’s made me see things through their eyes.”
Leaning into the original themes of man versus nature, Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined tells the journey of Mowgli as a young refugee caught in a world devastated by the impacts of climate change. The animals are not at home in the lush South Asian jungle, but instead roaming the concrete streets of a city, seemingly displaced by the environmental crisis.
The backbone of the work is a script by Tariq Jordan, which began as a conventional stage play before being broken down into a series of voiceovers that paired with each animal. Through a process of “body synching”, the dancers move in a way that matches the intention of the spoken words. Although narrative elements often feature in Khan’s work, working from a script was a novel undertaking.
“For each project there is a dogma or rules I set myself, forcing me to operate uncomfortably so I’m not repeating things,” explains Khan. “For Jungle Book reimagined, I wanted to tell the story primarily using text as the score. There were challenges but eventually a lot of the text was absorbed by the body and, over time, the body could tell more and more of the story until the movement became its own kind of language.”
Accompanying the movement and voices is a huge animation that both backdrops and overlays the stage. Incredibly, each animal has been “rotorscoped”, meaning that live action footage of the dancers moving as animals has been traced over by hand, frame-by-frame, to produce realistic animation that reflects Khan’s choreography. This old-fashioned technique has added a rich texture to the work that’s at once primal and painterly.
So with a young hero and big animations, but sobering themes of climate refugees and the fragility of nature, who exactly is the show for? The answer is both simple and not.
“We choose to ignore [climate change],” says Khan. “What I want to share with my children, and the new generation, is: no, I’m not going to switch off, I’m not going to sugar-coat it. I’m going to talk about it. So this is not a children’s show, and this is not an adult’s show. This is everybody’s show.”
Indeed much of Khan’s repertoire engages heavy themes. His chosen narratives often weave ideas of power, mortality and identity, underscored by a searing urgency that demands we sit up and listen. But in many ways, he is an artist who merely holds a mirror to humanity.
And in this particular tale of climate change, we all have a stake. Much of the production’s early development took place over Zoom calls during COVID lockdowns. Khan’s unofficial resident collaborator was his 10-year-old daughter, who would hang out in the home office and eavesdrop on calls about the script and storyline.
“My daughter’s voice was so instrumental in this work. She would whisper to me all her thoughts on what she feels about the world, what she thinks The Jungle Book should be about. And I really let that influence the show because I wanted to tell a story that truly connects with the next generation, even if it’s a difficult story to tell.”
The perspective from which a story is told is a crucial question in Khan’s artistic philosophy (it’s telling that the choreographer has rewritten Mowgli as a young girl). After the “what” and “why” comes the question of “how” the story should be told. He credits this thinking to the original storyteller in his life.
“My mother would tell me so many stories growing up, from Ancient Greek myths to Hindu stories, tales from Islam, Christianity – everything – and I would absorb every detail. Years later I found myself in arguments because people had different versions of the same stories, so I went back to my mother and asked her ‘what were these stories you told me?’
“And she said ‘well, I told you about Adam and Eve from Eve’s point of view, or about the wives of Muhammad, or I gave you Saraswati’s side not Brahma’s’. A lot of her stories were from the woman’s perspective and, looking back, I realise now that was her way of making sense of the society she found herself in, and her way of responding to it.”
It’s clear Khan understands that a good story starts by listening, and an even better story comes from listening to the right people.
‘Jungle Book reimagined’ can be seen at the Canberra Theatre Centre from February 2 - 3, the Perth Festival from February 9 – 17 and the Adelaide Festival from March 15 – 17.