Sadler’s Wells Theatre
4th April 2023
The ten-year-old Akram Khan played the title role in The Adventures of Mowgli. So, when his young daughter demanded a production less dark than his recent works, Khan selected Kipling’s story as a starting place for Jungle Book reimagined. Khan’s concerns for the future lead him to introduce a world severely impacted by climate change, while keeping many of the elements of the original story.
He describes the work as a dance drama and like several of Crystal Pite’s productions, he has a recorded text spoken by actors while the dancers perform. In this mix, we also have a vibrant animation video by Adam Smith and Nick Hillel, depicting the ruined world and animals as the story unfolds. I particularly liked the wise elephants that appear at crucial points in the narrative.
As the story opens, we hear radio broadcasts describing climate catastrophe, with rapidly rising sea levels drowning much of civilization. Mowgli, played by Jan Mikaela Villaneuva, is separated from her parents on an escaping raft and her movement clearly expresses her isolation and vulnerability after she is washed ashore, and she provides a humane focus for the production.
We are soon introduced to the animals and their Council running this region. They overcome their fear of humanity to protect the young immigrant who brings skills they can use, such as opening tins. The choreography for the wolves, chimps and other animals is extremely demanding with wide stretched legs, floor work and sore knees. The artists are up to the challenge and their dynamic movement stimulates our belief that they represent animals. To keep the number of dancers to a reasonable level, they sometimes play supportive wolves, and in the same costumes, demented chimps abused in earlier human experiments. This can be a little confusing but does not disturb the narrative for long.
Holly Vallis is convincing as a lithe, protective Bagheera and as Baloo, Tom Davis-Dunn lumbers around as a jolly bear and injects much humour into his scenes. Another imaginative move is to represent Kaa the serpent as a chain of unlinked boxes, and the dancer holding the head manages to make it menacing, after Kaa has helped to rescue Mowgli from the chimps, but still wants to eat her. Part way into the second half, we see an extended ensemble dance scene for the animals and Mowgli to slower music, highlighting Khan’s skill with geometry and movement. At the end, Mowgli helps to eliminate a human hunter, threatening the community, but the animals still have to move, as the waters continue to rise and Mowgli reluctantly decides to leave on a raft and her fate is left open. Akram Khan and his dramaturg, Sharon Clark, have paid homage to the original story while introducing current concerns in an innovative production.