Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater
Axelrod Performing Arts Center
Deal Park, New Jersey
February 3, 2024 evening
The Jungle Book
You’ve got to give Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater (AXCBT) credit. It presents quality dance entertainment for adults and children in its Monmouth County, NJ area and beyond, and in the process takes risks. From what I’ve seen, the risks pay off – as is the case with its most recent production, The Jungle Book.
It may not have all the bells and whistles available to large, long-established and well-endowed ballet or theater companies, and perfection is more a goal to strive for than an expectation, but under AXBCT’s Artistic Director and Choreographer Gabriel Chajnik, this production has heart and ingenuity to spare, and is far more accomplished and entertaining than anyone not familiar with it would have any right to expect.
Rudyard Kipling wrote the original collection of stories, published in 1894, based on the Indian fables and stories told to him as a child and on his own experiences living in India. He later would be the first English-language writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1907, at the time its youngest recipient. [Among Kipling’s other writings are “The Second Jungle Book” (which was published only a year after the original), ”The Man Who Would Be King,” “ Captains Courageous,” “Gunga Din,” and “The Just So Stories.”]
Chajnik doesn’t change “The Jungle Book” (except, like some versions of Swan Lake, he modifies the original story by adding a happy, or at least happier than usual, ending). He’s not interested in updating it or making it more “relevant” to current times, as some other productions have done. But he has changed the way Kipling’s tale, based as it is on Indian stories, should be told theatrically.
Recognizing that “The Jungle Book” is an Indian-based collection of stories, he has integrated Indian dance, Indian choreography, and dancers of Indian descent into the production. That is, rather than having “only” a full complement of company dancers and additional ballet dancers and actors, he has mixed his own choreography (assisted by Associate Choreographers John John Tarrayo and Linda Kilponen) with choreography by, and students of, an Indian dance teacher. The result is an enhancement of the story that’s fully consistent with Kipling’s original.
The result is quite magical. In its way, it’s as much Broadway as Boardwalk entertainment (Asbury Park is nearby), with a kinship – recognizing the caveats expressed above – to The Lion King.
Chajnik’s co-choreographer here is Sudha Sekhar Devulapalli, the founder and Artistic Director of Kalanjali School of Dance (Kalanjali), a 27-year Bharatnatyam (a style of Indian Classical Dance) dance academy located in Kendall Park, NJ, who learned advanced dance techniques, teaching methodologies and the art of choreography in India. And Chajnik doesn’t stop with choreography and dancers. The dance’s score is largely Indian as well, composed by Pramath Kiran and Praveen D. Rao, each of whom has extensive experience in Indian music and instruments. This music dominates the production, but it’s also integrated with incidental music by Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Bartok, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other classical composers.
Somehow, miraculously, it all works – beginning the moment that the young Kalanjali students solemnly walk down the theater’s two orchestra aisles up to the stage, foretelling the imminent arrival of something of significance to which attention must be paid.
Before addressing the piece as presented, an overview of the stage set and presentation is essential to understand why and how The Jungle Book works as well as it does.
The stage is set very much the way it was for AXCBT’s prior production, The Polar Express (previously reviewed). That is, there are physical sets upstage but separated from the stage’s back wall that serve as the location of projected images (mostly of a jungle or components thereof), providing a contrast to, or enhancing, whatever is projected onto the rear scrim. These physical sets fill an additional function as pedestals or bridges onto which various characters leap, observe the stage action, or dance.
But that’s just the beginning. In a program note Chajnik writes that the viewer will observe a variety of narrators (whose function I’ll explain below) depicting the story using hand gestures, or mudras, which can be followed by reading the story as it unfolds in the book. “What book”? I thought to myself. Did I miss a handout? No.
Upstage center, in front of those physical sets, is a huge open book (I’ll call it a “stagebook”) displaying two pages (one facing the other) onto which the story, and at times supplementary educational information, is projected as the dance progresses, allowing audience members to connect words to what the narrators are silently saying. Literally, it’s the jungle book for The Jungle Book. [The silent speech of Indian Classical Dance involving body and foot positioning, facial expression, and hand gestures may seem the equivalent of mime in classical ballet, but it’s not quite the same. There the image is something of a metaphorical summary or substitute for information; here, at least in this Indian dance style, the image is more comprehensive, and more directly connected to the action.]
The Indian dance students, nineteen in total per the program (some of whom may alternate with or understudy others), consist of young ladies from roughly teenage to maybe twenties, abetted by some who appear to have more experience, who participate in the dance in two basic ways: in group Indian dance (or smaller number subsets), and as solo narrators who appear at the outset of many individual scenes to describe the narrative as it is projected onto the stagebook in Indian classical dance form. There are thirteen such narrators. These narrators serve as visual Indian dance connections to each scene or group of scenes that they introduce.
Beyond that, these Indian dancers wear costumes (and some may change costumes during the piece as their particular function changes) in traditional Bharatnatyam style – multi-colored blouses (here in patches of red, blue, gold, and white; or green, red and white), and a long complementary-colored saree (a/k/a sarong) with a sash of sorts around the waist and extending beyond, and jewelry adorning parts of the costumes and at various locations on the dancers’ bodies, including their faces. It’s not clear whether these costumes were specially designed for The Jungle Book or are costumes routinely used in school or Kalanjali performances. Regardless, their visual impact is enormous, and pivotal to the production’s success.
Aside from the Indian dance costumes, costumes are also a significant visual component of the story told. [Costume design is credited to Jose Solis, with Additional Costume Design to Janessa Urwin.] Each character has his or her own costume, in nearly all cases consisting of individualized headpieces that surround each animal character dancer’s head as well as individualized costumes. These also are quite detailed and colorful. Together with the young Indian dancers and the projected scenes, the visual color and texture is like no other production that I’m aware of in a company of this size.
The story as presented here generally follows Kipling’s progression as set out in three of the “Jungle Book” stories: “Mowgli’s Brothers,” “Kaa’s Hunting,” and “Tiger! Tiger!,” as well as some of the continuation of the story in “The Second Jungle Book.” From what I’ve been able to glean, these are the stories, populated with Kipling’s anthropomorphic characters, that have been adapted many times in a wide variety of media (including two animated Disney films). Some story details, and some of Kipling’s characters, are not included here, but their omission isn’t critical – and is probably essential to maintain the dance’s focus.
The reader’s familiarity with the basic stories is assumed.
The Jungle Book is divided into easily digestible scenes that identify the character being introduced and/or the action being depicted, but the dance flows seamlessly (except for one intermission) from beginning to end. There are thirty separately identified scenes (which I’ll call “mini-scenes”) in the first act alone.
As the young Kalanjali dancers complete their procession and take their stage positions, the stagebook provides an illustrated summary of the mythological/ religious (Hindu) origins of Indian dance. The dance that is then performed concurrently with these projections is titled ‘Ganesha Stuti” – a generic dance (not limited to one particular form) that has been defined as “a dance in reverence of Lord Ganesha, the remover of all obstacles, who the dancer asks for a sound performance.” The actual story begins after this introductory dance.
Most of the characters are introduced sequentially, preceded by or concurrently with each scene’s narrator and a summary of the character and/or that part of the story projected on the stagebook. Often, after the narrative ends and the scene continues, the projection is changed from words to visualizations of the character or the environment in which the character is introduced and/or the scene takes place. And the characters and action introduced by each narrator usually combine two or more mini-scenes, and the scenes, and narrators, occasionally overlap.
For example, the narrator for the scene that follows the Ganesha Stuti introduces two of the mini-scenes: a visual projected image of Akela (not a physical character in the dance), the leader of the Seeonee wolf pack that is central to the story. [Seeonee, which is mentioned in the epigram that follows the first “Jungle Book” story, is the name of a dense jungle/ forest, now reportedly a national park, located in Madhya Pradesh, in central India.]
Thereafter, the first of the dance’s characters, Father Wolf, appears. A second narrator introduces Mother Wolf. Together they provide shelter for a human infant they find in the forest. A third narrator introduces the scene where Mother and Father Wolf name the infant Mowgli (which, as the stagebook says and the narrator silently describes, means “Little Frog”) who are all faced with a threat introduced by the fourth narrator in the character of Tabaqui (the Jackal), an ally of and messenger for the jungle’s most feared predator, a tiger named Shere Khan. All of this is accompanied by words and images projected onto the stagebook.
I’ll refrain from the temptation to identify all the mini-scenes and characters. Suffice it to say that what I’ve described provides a flavor of the complexity of the production as a whole.
But all this is only a fraction, significant as it is, of the challenges that Chajkin and Devulapalli, together with the company’s cast, set, lighting, and costume designers, composers, and staff have faced and overcome in putting this production together.
Nearly all of the production’s mini-scenes include choreographed character introductions and story development. In addition to the examples I’ve mentioned of Indian dance, ballet and various forms of contemporary dance are integrated into the choreography and performed by AXCDT dancers in a variety of roles, as are students (apparently teenagers) from the Axelrod Performing Arts Academy, the company’s affiliated school, who perform as bees, monkeys, and peacocks. Even complex ballet combinations are incorporated into the choreography, particularly for Shere Khan (portrayed by Aldeir Monteiro, who has extensive ballet experience and appears courtesy of American Repertory Ballet).
And amid all this complexity The Jungle Book also manages to successfully incorporate humor through some of the very funny scenes (e.g., Young Mowgli being “attacked” by bees), and by occasionally peppering the story projected onto the stagebook with humorous “asides” that help make the production frothy and accessible to viewers of all ages.
The origin of The Jungle Book’s final series of scenes (Act 2) may be unclear, but the dance isn’t. Where the last of three original “Jungle Book” stories ends with Mowgli leaving the jungle for the nearby village of humans, being found by his “real” human mother (Messua) and her husband who think he may be their long-lost son and adopt him, cleverly eliminating Shere Khan with the help of his animal allies, and then deciding to return to the jungle where he was more comfortable, Chajnik and company incorporate parts of “The Second Jungle Book” to provide that “happy ending” I mentioned at the outset. Mowgli marries a girl from the human village (in the Disney film she’s named Shanti, but the character here, though seen, is not named) – one of the young Indian dancers – symbolically bringing the two cultures, and their jungle heritage, together amid joyous dance and celebration.
One would think that amid all this, characterization would be minimal and limited to the choreography and costumes. In some cases that’s true, but in The Jungle Book most of the dancers add more. In addition to Monteiro’s fiercely vibrant Shere Khan is another guest artist from ARB, Roland Jones, who delivers a nimble and animated Tabaquil.
Sarah Takash’s Baloo (a cuddly-looking bear) and Olivia Miranda’s Bagheera (a panther) carry the laboring oar for much of the dance. Two dancers I remember as having given exceptional performances in The Polar Express delivered exciting performances here as well: Lilakoi Grover’s somewhat hyper Monkey King (she alternates in the role with Grace Sellinger), and John John Tarrayo’s Mowgli. As he did in The Polar Express, Tarrayo infuses his role here with unbridled energy and idiosyncratic dance – perhaps that he choreographed himself – that appears to be a combination of contemporary forms, including hip-hop). And Arianna Tsvikin, abetted by her fabulous snakeskin costume, embodies the fatal attraction of Kha (a/k/a Kaa) the python, and, doubling as Messua, delivers a sweetly nuanced performance.
Juan Viveros and Gianna Carroll (Father Wolf and Mother Wolf) introduced the story and remained active almost throughout; Takash traded her bear outfit for a tutu as Queen Peacock; young Jake Ward was a spunky Young Mowgli (he alternates in the role with Christopher Pollak, as they did as Hero Boy in The Polar Express), and Emma Lightbody-McAllan, who shared a lead role in The Polar Express, here was an energetic Grey Wolf (Young Mowgli’s friend). And Katie Jaffie and Avery Snyder appeared as Kites, with Jaffie and Snyder doubling respectively as Mang (a bat) and one of Kha’s accompanying serpents. And the entire Company appeared as Villagers, joined by the production’s young dancer students (Indian and ballet) in the concluding marriage celebration.
I would like to acknowledge the Kalanjali School’s individual students (particular the narrators), and the Axelrod of Performing Arts by name (they’re identified by name in the program), but that would eat up almost as much space as I’ve already used. Suffice it to say that all contributed to the success of this production.
Following the stage celebration at the conclusion of the production, the cast-members (I think just both sets of student dancers, but I’m not certain) filter through the audience and assemble at the foot of the proscenium in communal joy and camaraderie. At a time when the world seems preoccupied with our differences, it’s refreshing to see a production that celebrates them by bringing two dance cultures and heritages together. As I wrote at the outset, the risks that AXCBT’s The Jungle Book took paid off in theater-wide smiles.