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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Stanford Live presents Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined, Dec 2 & 3, 2023, Stanford, CA

It’s 2029, climate change has taken its toll. Rain falls incessantly. London is permanently flooded, unhabitable but for the animals, escaped from research facilities and zoos. Maintaining uneasy alliances, the creatures greatly distrust humans. The abandoned buildings become their lairs. What transpires when a human child is found orphaned in their midst is the dilemma around which internationally renowned director and choreographer Akram Khan has crafted his dystopian Jungle Book reimagined, presented locally by Stanford Live December 2 and 3.

To tell this tale Khan uses a dozen live dancers, projected images, music, song and recorded dialog. The characters are drawn from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 story collection “The Jungle Book,” which speaks to ethical-decision-making and moral responsibilities while cautioning us about the irresponsible nature of mankind.

Akram Khan's "Jungle Book reimagined' - Photo by Ambra Vernuccio

Far from the verdant jungles of the original, or the colorfully animated Disney classic, this is a direly bleak world of tones. The lighting levels are kept almost uncomfortably low throughout, forcing us to strain to see at times, while also allowing the full magical effect the projected imagery.

The embodiment of packs of wolves, collectives of apes, and flocks of birds, by the dancers of the Akram Khan Company, is enthralling and transporting. As wolves they roam on all fours. Their toes and palms to the ground, with low sniffing heads, their butts are their highest point. As apes they squat in deep wide stances. Caving inward with hunched backs, their knees hover near their shoulders. Walking on fists and feet, their bodies rock from side to side. Despite the performers’ apparent ease, maintaining these postures and awkward gaits requires super human strength and agility.

In silhouette against an acid green low sky, a dozen figures stand hunched in misery, compacting slowly around themselves, as disjointed news headlines speak of heat, rising waters, extinction, curfews before urging all to seek higher ground. A black and white animated film featuring rafts of people adrift on the Thames as Big Ben looms in ruins in the distance, launches us into this sodden world.

A girl is lost to the water, sinking precariously until the snout of a whale lifts her from the depths to safety. The animal and human forms, which move naturalistically, are digitally rendered in white line drawings upon the front black scrim. When light is added behind the scrim the world of the stage is revealed and with it the live orphaned child, who the animals will name Mowgli, a girl child in this retelling. Animals circle cautiously, approaching her prone figure for only moments before seeking a safer distance.

Told from the perspective of the animals, it is their voices we hear as they discuss the wisdom of keeping and protecting Mowgli versus banishing or killing her. A variety of voices create the dialog and with each new accent a different performer rises, emphasizing their point with animalistic gesturing. The dancers’ physicalizing of their various animal species involves heads canted at odd angles, twitchy countenances and jutting angular limbs, all of it distinctly unhuman.

Mowgli cannot speak to the animals, but she observes and learns to trust them. We only hear her voice in projected flashbacks of conversations with her mother, which unfold in illustration-animation sequences. We learn of Mowgli’s fondness for animals and reluctance to kill or eat them. The mother shares ethical rules for the treatment of animals and reminds her daughter that humankind does not own the earth, that we are visitors who must live within nature.

Akram Khan Company's Luke Watson, Maya Balam Meyong, Matthew Sandiford, Harry Foster, Pui Yung Shum, Max Revell, Holly Vallis, Bianca Mikahil, Filippo Franzese in Jungle Book reimagined. Photo: Richard Termine

Mogwli’s key protectors are Bagheera, a kidnapped albino panther who grew up in a palace, and Baloo, an escaped dancing bear. Baloo is the only animal that consistently walks on two feet, but through his extremely bowlegged gate and the curvature of his arms capped with paw-like-hands, his manly form is erased.

Mogwli gets stolen by a band of scary apes, and must be rescued. The silhouette of a human hunter appears in the background. A larger-than-life boa must be convinced to save the day. The story can be confusing as the rich soundscape of mechanical urban noise and music, interweaves with, and occasionally overpowers, the dialog.

The strongest and most satisfying moments are those of pure dance, where Khan’s unique brand of kathak-informed contemporary dance delivers breathtaking flocks of birds through the waving breastbones, shoulder blades and arms of the performers. The wolves constant prowling on toes and finger tips with swaying skulls evoke their lupine stealth. Excited apes rising to rock from foot-to-foot arms and legs bent, they move like hinged marionette puppets.

One of the clever conceits of the production which heads its own message of sustainable imperatives, is that the only set pieces used are carboard boxes. These are sourced locally and recycled after performances at each tour stop, eliminating the carbon footprint scenery transport would leave. Their piles create shapes, catching light and projected images which complete the settings. The articulated body of Kaa, the rock python is conjured in fascinating theatrical style by six dancers working in tandem. Side by side they each hold a slightly smaller brown box than the next. The head box is large and has two simple large eye holes and a pair of small nose cavities which glow with green light from within. Working like a team of lion dance puppeteers, the dancers manipulate their boxes and bodies, creating a giant slithering snake.

Akram Khan's 'Jungle Book reimagined" - Photo Richard Termine

Theatrical magic wields its full potential as the human hunter finally takes human form, roiling in desperation within a storm-tossed sea. He arches with arms grasping skyward before disappearing under the stage-size cloth the dancers maneuver into towering waves complementing the thunderous soundtrack.

This dark fable resounds against a backdrop of firestorms, famine and heat waves. Gunshots and explosions are frequent and may be too scary for children. Teens, even precocious pre-teens, will appreciate this tale of climate distress and animal ingenuity, perhaps even more than adults. Its heightened emotional narrative calls to mind that of the most successful YA literature.

Review by Jen Norris, published December 3, 2023


Stanford Live

Memorial Auditorium

Saturday, December 2, 2023 7:30 pm

Sunday, December 3, 2023 2:30 pm

Production Credits

Director/Choreographer Akram Khan

Creative Associate/Coach Mavin Khoo

Writer Tariq Jordan

Dramaturgical Advisor Sharon Clark

Composer Jocelyn Pook

Sound Designer Gareth Fry

Lighting Designer Michael Hulls

Visual Stage Designer Miriam Buether

Art Direction and Director of Animation Adam Smith (YeastCulture)

Producer/Director of Video Design Nick Hillel (YeastCulture)

Rotoscope Artists/Animators Naaman Azhari, Natasza Cetner, Edson R Bazzarin

Rehearsal Directors Nicky Henshall, Andrew Pan, Angela Towler

Dancers 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 Mikaela Villanueva, Luke Watson

Assistant Animators Nisha Alberti, Geo Barnett, Miguel Mealla Black, Michelle Cramer, Jack Hale, Zuzanna Odolczyk, Sofja Umarik

Voice Actors Tian-Lan Chaudhry, Joy Elias-Rilwan, Pushkala Gopal, Dana Haqjoo, Nicky Henshall, Su-Man Hsu, Kathryn Hunter, Emmanuel Imani, Divya Kasturi, Jeffery Kissoon, Mavin Khoo, Yasmin Paige, Max Revell, Christopher Simpson, Pui Yung Shum, Holly Vallis, Jan Mikaela Villanueva, Luke Watson, 3rd year students of Rambert School.

Producing Director Farooq Chaudhry

Executive Director Isabel Tamen

Project Manager Mashitah Omar

Technical Director Zeynep Kepekli

Technical Manager Michael Cunningham

Touring Production Manager and Prop Maker Marek Pomocki

Lighting Engineer Stephane Dejours

Sound Engineer Philip Wood

Video Technician and Projectionist Matthew Armstrong

Technical Stage Manager Samuel Collier

Co-produced by Curve Leicester, Attiki Cultural Society – Greece, Birmingham Hippodrome, Edinburgh International Festival, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay Singapore, Festspielhaus St. Pölten, Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance – Chicago, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts – New York, Maison de la Danse / Pôle européen de création – Lyon, National Arts Centre – Canada, New Vision Arts Festival – Hong Kong, Orsolina28, Pfalzbau Bühnen – Theater im Pfalzbau Ludwigshafen, Romaeuropa Festival, Stanford Live / Stanford University, Teatros del Canal – Madrid, théâtre de Caen, Théâtre de la Ville – Paris.

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