Jungle Book reimagined
Akram Khan Company
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
Reviewed February 9
Perth Festival 2024 has officially begun in Boorloo, and this year’s program is particularly exciting for dance-lovers, including dance-based works from companies Marrugeku, Dancenorth Australia, The Farm, West Australian Ballet, and – all the way from the UK – Akram Khan Company, with Jungle Book reimagined.
Based on Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories written in 1894, choreographer and director Akram Khan has brought this classic tale for all ages into the very-near-future: a grey dystopian vision of the 2030s, where humans are facing the threat of extinction on an Earth ravaged by climate change. In this version, the protagonist Mowgli is a young girl born of an Indigenous tribe of South-East Asia. Her family are climate-crisis refugees, forced out of their homelands by rising sea levels and mass-flooding, adrift through unforgiving oceans upon tiny rafts. When Mowgli falls off and is separated from her beloved mother, she eventually finds herself washed up in a high-rise city, devoid of humans and reclaimed by animals as a concrete jungle.
We learn of Mowgli’s plight through beautiful hand-drawn animation (designed by YeastCulture’s Adam Smith and Nick Hillel) that is projected onto a semi-transparent screen at the front of the stage. This screen remains throughout the work, with animation being an integral part of the production. Created using the century-old technique of rotoscoping in which footage of the dancers was traced over frame by frame, the animation serves as both a storytelling device and a transforming set design, chosen by Khan as an environmentally responsible alternative to freighting large physical set pieces across the world.
Unlike many of Khan’s previous works, Jungle Book reimagined is heavily text-based, taking its structure from a script written by Tariq Jordan. Each dancer moves in perfect synchronisation with the recorded voices of their character, providing a literal narrative that caters for young audiences and steers the work away from abstractness. Weaved through the script is a goose-bump inducing soundscape by Jocelyn Pook; featuring full orchestral melodies pierced with heart-wrenching, wailing vocals and punctuated by excerpts of our modern-day-Mowgli Greta Thunberg’s famous “How Dare You?” speech.
Khan’s signature choreographic style is formatively influenced by his training in the Indian classical dance form, Kathak, and uniquely blended with western contemporary dance. The movement of the ensemble is impressive, with athletic flips, deep pliés and smooth turns. Most fascinating, however, is the level of embodied research evident in the dancers’ portrayal of each animal. During the rehearsal process, the dancers spent many hours studying videos of animals - their posture, anatomy, and way of locomotion – with the goal to not imitate animals, but to become them. A stand-out performer was Max Revell (BBC Young Dancer 2019) in the role of the radio-loving tortured lab monkey, Specimen 1. Utilising his background of popping and break dance, Revell is a marvel to behold, isolating each movement with incredible speed and precision.
Another highlight is the puppetry of Kaa, the cunning snake feared by all animals. Made simply of six individual cardboard boxes with eerily green light bulbs for eyes, she is an omnipresent being who can see the past and future, her voice echoing from every corner of the stage as she shape-shifts, her body detaching and recalibrating as the dancers move the boxes away and towards each other.
At the heart of this work is the relationship of humans with each other, with animals and with nature, and how the disintegration of this harmony has resulted in crisis. Mowgli carries with her everywhere a small box containing a mirror, a gift from her mother, symbolising that she must look inside herself for the answers. Khan’s choice in placing a First Nations character at the centre of the story suggests that the solution lies in deep listening and respect for country. Holding a mirror to humanity, Mowgli reminds us that we must all keep ourselves accountable.
– ISABELLE LECLEZIO
‘Jungle Book reimagined’ continues at the Perth Festival until February 17 and then moves to the Adelaide Festival from March 15 – 17. Read Rhys Ryan's interview with Akram Khan here.