Akram Khan Company in “Jungle Book reimagined.” Photograph by Ambra Vernuccio

Law of the Jungle

Akram Khan's “Jungle Book reimagined”

Performance
Akram Khan Company: “Jungle Book reimagined”
Place
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland, August 27, 2022
Words
Róisín O'Brien

Akram Khan’s newest production “Jungle Book reimagined” is a spellbinding work of dance theatre that retells Rudyard Kipling’s original tale through dance, animation, text and music. At its core is a group of fantastically talented dancers, who ably take on their animal characters with a commitment that doesn’t rely on lazy mannerisms.

In Khan’s “Jungle Book,” rising water levels have caused a mass displacement of people around the world. The opening animation from YeastCulture of famous landmarks and skyscrapers lying atop one another amidst swirling waves signals that we’re in a near future rather than the present, but it’s hardly miles beyond our current reality. Mowgli is a young girl who, in attempting to save a distressed bird, falls off her raft and sinks deep into the ocean. She is rescued by whales and brought to a new land ruled by animals.

Akram Khan Company in “Jungle Book reimagined.” Photograph by Ambra Vernuccio

The animal kingdom contains a multitude of different creatures—proud wolves, anarchic monkeys, snide mice. Recognisable characters from the book are there: the fierce yet protective Bagheera, the kind, large Baloo who in this tale is a former circus bear. The dancers drop to the floor and sprint across it on all four legs with amazing ease, triceps flexed under Michael Hull’s porous lighting. Voiceovers narrate the characters’ actions, letting the audience into their world while Mowgli remains linguistically outside of it. The dancers move, Pite-like, in fits and starts to the rhythms of the dialogue.

What follows is a tale of Mowgli’s interactions with the different animals and factions, some of whom wish to accept her, others to reject her, and some who wish to learn from her and take her deadly power. Humanity’s previous mistreatment of the animals and the natural world is threaded into their suspicions, and explored specifically through Bagheera’s and the Bandar-log’s captivepasts. Mowgli must find her purpose in this world of humans and animals, a world scarred by disconnection, mistrust and greed.

Akram Khan Company in “Jungle Book reimagined.” Photograph by Ambra Vernuccio

With a script from Tariq Jordan and dramaturgy by Sharon Clark, this is a dance theatre production that successfully emerges from plot, rather than treating it as a loose structuring device. The audience is able to get to know the characters and see the consequences of the decisions they make, as well as consider larger questions. Some of the text itself is clunky in its directness, and the narrative does not always know if it wants to make a complex point or a simple one. That the production is aimed at younger audiences as well as adults might explain some of this, but nonetheless, it is invigorating to experience a dance production that deals with themes that emerge from concrete storytelling, rather than using themes as window-dressing.

The movement of the dancers is such a joy to watch, and Khan’s choreography is likewise an observant and creative exercise. Each animal has a different specificity: the way a hand reaches out, bent in at the knuckles, or how it folds down on top of another hand when at rest, is deliciously paw-like. Baloo’s wide swagger evokes the competence but never full ease of a bear standing on two legs. The dancers’ immersion in their characters reaches all the way up into their pouting or tongue-protruding facial expressions. They’re nonetheless able to snap into gear to move as one, employing  flexed hands, arched backs and inwardly rotated feet that perch on the end of long extended legs.

Akram Khan Company in “Jungle Book reimagined.” Photograph by Ambra Vernuccio

The animation that is projected in front of and behind the dancers favours clean lines, gaining texture as it layers the images on top of one another. Jocelyn Pook’s cinematic score and the sound design by Gareth Fry, drive the emotional arcs of the piece. Its message may be heavy-handed but the performers of “Jungle Book reimagined” are wonderfully light-footed.