Akram Khan Company
The Rose Theater at Lincoln Center
New York, New York
November 16, 2023
Jungle Book reimagined
What do you get when you take Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, jingle the jungle a little, add a little Planet of the Apes and Avatar, throw in some brilliantly conceived projection imagery and an unusually intelligent libretto, add a pinch of Akram Khan’s choreography, toss it all together with a smidgen of political correctness, and decorate it with extraordinary acting? An unusual and quite exceptional visual theatrical/ dance experience.
The Jungle Book reimagined premiered in April, 2022 in Leicester in the U.K., and is now in the middle of a world tour, which included a three-night engagement (its New York premiere) at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater in what used to be the Time-Warner Center at Columbus Circle and is now named the Deutsche Bank Center. I attended its opening performance.
Kipling wrote the original collection of stories, published in 1894, based on his experiences in India (he was born there, and returned as a teenager after having endured an English education as well as abandonment issues that were later reflected in some of his work), including the Indian stories told to him as a child. He left India in 1889, traveled the world, married, and for a period of time lived with his family in Vermont before returning to London. His fame as a writer preceded his travels and flourished during and after. [Among other writings were The Second Jungle Book, The Man Who Would Be King, Captains Courageous, Gunga Din, and the Just So Stories.] He later would be the first English-language writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1907, at the time its youngest recipient.
I have some quibbles with various aspects of Jungle Book reimagined (hereafter at times simply “Jungle Book”) that I’ll briefly address in due course. None are serious enough to affect my evaluation of the piece as a whole. And there are two issues related to this production that I feel obligated to discuss in some detail, one of which I’ll do at the end of this review, the other follows below.
While Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined has elements of political correctness, it’s no more so than other contemporary productions of most anything. It is not what Lincoln Center billed it as in publicity releases: an update of the original’s “colonizer-centric” perspective. On the contrary, to the extent its focus is on anything, it’s on the environment.
The Akram Khan Company’s website uses the following language to describe his Jungle Book (in addition to a quotation from Khan that reinforces this description):
“Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined is a new work based on the much-loved story by Rudyard Kipling. With a new sense of urgency, Akram has reinterpreted this known story from another perspective, through the lens of today’s children – those who will inherit our world and become our future storytellers.
Embedded in the roots of Jungle Book is the deep threat that mankind poses towards nature. Akram and his team have reimagined the journey of Mowgli through the eyes of a refugee caught in a world devastated by the impact of climate change. They tell the story of a child who will help us to listen again, not to our voices but to the voices of the natural world that we, the modern world, try to silence. Jungle Book reimagined speaks to all generations as a step to remind, to relearn and to reimagine a new world together.”
That, and references to certain other issues of contemporary significance, are what distinguish Jungle Book reimagined from its predecessor. It’s not an attack on Kipling or the original stories; it just reimagines them in the context of environmental catastrophe.
The story Khan tells begins with a deluge of biblical proportions that impacts everyone and everything that occurred after world-wide environmental disasters had already resulted in iconic buildings – including but not limited to the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – having been swept off their moorings and now float far from where they originally stood. This opening image seems to take off directly from the ending of Planet of the Apes. Similarly, the existence of intelligent, English-speaking animals mimics the surviving jungle inhabited by that film’s apes. Here, however, the animal “jungle” is an assortment of abandoned government buildings within which the animals took refuge from the initial environmental catastrophe, creating a sort of concrete, brick-and-mortar jungle to replace the real jungle in which the animals had lived for eons.
Following that introduction, the story turns to the worldwide misery that the planet-wide environmental destruction brought to the human survivors and their non-human co-residents. The torrential rain causes already watery areas to rise, and human inhabitants to try to escape the pervasive flood. Among the rafts filled with climate-change refugees is one from which, despite the efforts of her mother, a girl falls overboard.
Being directed (watched over) by an overseeing bird (a “Kite” named Chil, who here is something of a fairy godmother surrogate), she soon finds herself among a wolf pack led by Raksha and Rama. After considerable deliberation by them and an animal counsel (and concern about the death and destruction that humans inevitably bring), they decide to save and raise her, and name her Mowgli.
Eventually, we learn that the animals that save her are part of a larger animal world, most of which (like those already mentioned) have names identical to those in Kipling’s original, and who have rules to follow and wisdom to share based on their experiences. Mowgli is initially helped by Bagheera, a kidnapped albino panther, and Baloo, an escaped dancing bear, but is soon kidnapped by the Bandar-log – formerly lab monkeys who have been conditioned by their human handlers to accept what humans tell them and to become humans themselves – who anticipate that Mowgli will help them. With the assistance of a python named Kaa (who escaped from a glass-enclosed observation tank in some sort of zoo), Mowgli is rescued.
As the piece progresses, through flashbacks Mowgli is given a history lesson by her mother which, in effect, says that certain humans invaded their country based on their greed for the country’s riches – and in the process brought weapons of destruction. [Essentially that’s the story in Avatar.] Eventually, an armed hunter appears, kills Chil, and threatens the other animals. Mowgli fights on behalf of the animals, and may ultimately return to her human family to teach them what the animals have taught her.
The last Khan piece I saw was his reimagined Giselle. Here the massive set in Khan’s Giselle is replaced by massive moving images projected against transparent upstage and downstage scrims, the one upstage backed by a curtain that slowly moves up and down depending on what the visual emphasis is. While it’s undeniable that projections have been utilized in countless theater and dance productions since the technical process first became advanced to the point of live theatrical usefulness, Jungle Book is different.
Here the projections are highly complex technically, but at the same time don’t emphasize that technical skillfulness. That is, there’s no intent to replicate details or coloration verisimilitude; it’s all black and white. At one moment rain pelts the area like white daggers against the black sky and rafts and people are being rocked on the dark waves and tossed overboard; at another a variety of animals is seen in sketch outlines that look somewhat primitive. But the animal images move as they’re supposed to – to frame that action on stage, and at times more (as when Chil is carried by other birds to bird heaven), and the results produce their own reality when integrated into the stage action. This alone is an extraordinary accomplishment in live theater projection/ animation, and those involved must be recognized for this alone: they include video design and animation by Yeast Culture (Art Direction and Director of Animation: Adam Smith; Producer/ Director of Video Design: Nick Hillel), the lighting, score, and sound design (by, respectively, Michael Hulls, Jocelyn Pook, and Gareth Fry), and the visual stage design by Miriam Buether. And each process includes a small army of contributing artists and engineers.
I must admit that, along with a few other criticisms (which, in the overall scheme of things are minor) I was initially unpleasantly surprised by the black-and-white and general (but not always) naif-like animation presentation. But my comfort level increased as the piece progressed, and it must be kept in mind that this isn’t Disney animation and, like the music, it’s supposed to enhance, not overwhelm the primary action on stage, which is live and reasonably colorful. Moreover, my understanding is that the original was illustrated (by Kipling’s father) in black and white (though with greater detail), and one of Kipling’s favorite artists was Aubrey Beardsley, who created images in black and white. So presenting the animation in black and white is actually consistent with Kipling’s preferences, and with the original.
The script, which was written by Tariq Jordan (the dramaturgical advisor was Sharon Clark), is a marvel of intelligence and lucidity (though subject to the same relatively minor concerns). Khan’s choreography, in its traditional sense, is somewhat limited to specific instances of animal dances, but comes together in a crescendo of excitement in the piece’s final scenes. But there’s more here than traditional choreography. There’s constant movement flow, by the ensemble or smaller subgroups, and enough variety of motion to keep even the most squeamish child, or adult, entertained.
Be that as it may, the story is presented as much (if not more) as a theater piece than as a dance. The story is told by the dancers who speak as they move – except they don’t. The process is so skillfully done that it takes a few minutes (at least, it took me that long) to realize that the dancers aren’t speaking, nor are they necessarily mouthing either. Their speech is projected onto them as much as the projections are – with differences in vocal identifications, tones, animalistic grunts, tempo and pitch that are fully integrated with the action on stage and perfectly synchronized with that character’s movement at any given point in time.
This projected speech is provided by an ensemble of voice actors, several of whom are also live actors in the piece. I suspect that many of the voiceovers by those who are also live actors were “spoken” by the same actor who provided that character’s voiceovers.
Which brings me to the actors.
The performances, individually and as a group, bring Khan’s conception to life. That’s what actors/ dancers are supposed to do when telling a story. But this one’s different: except for Mowgli, these actors are playing animals. That sort of thing isn’t particularly unusual either, except here, with the exception of Mowgli, they’re in animal character throughout the performance – speaking as an animal might speak if animals could speak English, moving in general and specific gestures appropriate for animals, all with a human sensibility. It’s concurrently tragic and funny, and quite extraordinary. They appear to have been skillfully trained by Creative Associate/Coach Mavin Khoo and others identified in the program, but the actors have to pull it off, and they do.
Unfortunately, the program doesn’t identify which actor/ dancers played which roles – some had far more significant stage time than others. And, to complicate things, the piece is supposed to have a cast of ten, but, depending on your source, twelve or thirteen are listed – so a few likely are understudies/ substitutes. To the extent the photos appended to this review identify the performers, they may or may not have been the actors I saw. Be that as it may, the cast, as listed in the evening’s program, was as follows: Maya Balam Meyong, Tom Davis-Dunn, Harry Theadora Foster, Filippo Franzese, Bianca Mikahil, Max Revell, Matthew Sandiford, Pui Yung Shum, Elpida Skourou, Holly Vallis, Jan Midaela Villanueave, and Luke Watson.
Several of these actors stand out. The actor who played Mowgli (who I believe is Pui Yung Shum) is exceptional. On stage she looks like a ten year old, but she acts and dances as if she’s had decades of experience at both. It’s wonderful, as well as a bit unsettling, to see her move totally in sync with the other dancers in fast-past dances without once looking to her sides to see what the others are doing. And while she doesn’t speak much (if at all), her physical presence is the glue that holds the piece together. If I’m right as to her identity, she may look ten years old, but she already has a masters degree in contemporary dance.
Of the animals, Bagheera and Baloo, and to a slightly lesser extent Raksha and Rama and Akela (a dog who leads the animal counsel) carry the laboring oars. Kaa, the python, appears as an assembly of boxes that navigate the stage area in the hands of dancers (or whose head separates from the rest of him when extra intensity is required). Bagheera and Akela have the greatest variety of action (physical and verbal), but each of them – as well as the other dancer/ actors in the ensemble – manages to bridge the gap between the humorous and the serious, between unreality and credibility, that makes Jungle Book reimagined work.
Those relatively minor quibbles I have relate to orphan themes (the many issues directly or implicitly raised but not developed); a muddy focus (first there’s the environmental catastrophe; then there’s the greed of those who exploit the country’s riches; then there’s the violence of the hunter, who may or may not be representative of humans in general – he’s described as having been cast out by his own kind); and identity decisions that seem to make no sense (e.g., why was Bagheera changed from a black panther in the original to an albino panther, particularly since that character is a good guy (er, good animal)? If there’s supposed to be a message there, it’s so well-hidden as to be non-existent.
But artistic license allows this absence of clarity as long as there’s enough that is clear to make the piece credible, and here there is. Environmental catastrophe is the general factor that is caused by, or itself causes, other matters.
That other serious issue that I said I’d save for this review’s end relates to the violence in The Jungle Book, reimagined.
After his daughter was born, Kipling wrote The Jungle Book collection of stories and purportedly read them to her. A footnoted reference in Wikipedia relates: “He especially enjoyed writing the Jungle Books and also corresponding with many children who wrote to him about them.”
I bring this up because I understand that The Jungle Book reimagined has been criticized by some for being too violent, and not suitable for children. I disagree. For one, the original stories themselves are tinged with violence and death (e.g., the chapters “Tiger! Tiger!,” “The White Seal,” and “Riki-Tikki-Tavi,” among others), although in the context of good triumphing over evil. The fact that The Jungle Book reimagined contains similar examples of violence (though not by animals, as in the original) is, in effect, no different. Indeed, it’s considerably less violent than images that might have been prompted by the original, and the character who apparently was the most violence-prone in the original stories, Shere Khan, the tiger, here doesn’t exist – although an argument can be made that he’s been replaced here by an environmental tiger that’s far more violent.
Second, and perhaps more important, is that children are much more conditioned to violence and death than adults think they are, and early-on can appreciate the difference between good and evil. What’s in The Jungle Book reimagined may be disturbing, but unless they’ve lived in a bubble they’re already long used to that. All they need do is watch television or play a video game – or go to school – and they know. They’re also more capable of dealing with complex issues than adults think they are, particularly adults who either never had children or romanticize childhood. Indeed, I think the recommendation of “over eight” for a child to be taken to The Jungle Book reimagined is more conservative than it need be. And with its emphasis on environmental catastrophe, Khan not only is preaching to the choir, but also to future generations who will understand – perhaps better than their parents.
So go ahead and take the kids to see it, or let the kids take you, the next time The Jungle Book reimagined comes to town; they’ll be able to explain it to you later.