Sometime in the near future, as floods engulf the world’s cities, a young climate refugee is separated from her family at sea. She is found, washed up on the shore, and adopted by a community of animals and given the name ‘Mowgli’. Transplanting the story into a dystopian vision of the mid-21st century, Akram Khan’s Jungle Book Reimagined is a magnificent multi-media retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s classic children’s book.
Dizzyingly ambitious, Khan’s production combines contemporary dance, exquisite animation and a stirring original score by Jocelyn Pook to evoke the complex cultures and ruthless hierarchies of Kipling’s jungle. The ten dancers are dressed plainly and more or less identically, leaving it to their primal, animalistic movements and the wildly expressive voice-acting to distinguish each animal.
The dancer playing Bagheera moves with lithe, feline flexibility, while Baloo’s movements are bolder and more boisterous, while maintaining the effortless grace that characterises the balletic choreography throughout the show. To characterise Kaa, the malicious serpent, the dancers form a chain, each holding a cardboard box, the first of which bears glowing green eyes. It seems ridiculous at first, but as the performers move gracefully as one, mimicking the snake’s undulating slither, the effect becomes less comical and more unsettling.
In addition to the dancers, beautiful, delicate animations by YeastCulture bring the jungle to life, and vividly illustrate the ravaged planet on which the story takes place. Flashbacks to Mowgli’s life before fleeing her home are projected onto a transparent curtain in front of the stage, and the dancers interact with the towering outlines of elephants, giraffes and whales.
And it’s not just the production value that sets Jungle Book Reimagined apart from a straightforward adaptation of Kipling’s text. By centring the story on a climate refugee, Khan subverts the colonial subtext of the original, and uses the story to explore humanity’s relationship with the natural world. In one of the most notable changes he makes, the animals live in deadly fear not of the fearsome tiger Shere Khan but of a lone human hunter.
It may be a simplistic amendment to the story, just as the audio snippets of Greta Thunberg’s speeches emanating from an old, discarded radio make for fairly on-the-nose commentary. But, woven into Mowgli’s storyline, these themes are taken from the abstract realm to within touching distance of reality.
With thanks to Zoë White for this review.
All images © Ambra Vernuccio.