Dance Review: JUNGLE BOOK REIMAGINED (BroadStage, Santa Monica; U.S. opening of Global Tour)

Post image for Dance Review: JUNGLE BOOK REIMAGINED (BroadStage, Santa Monica; U.S. opening of Global Tour)

by William Keiser on October 27, 2023

in Dance,Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


Brilliant dancing gets waylaid by a chaotic and illegible narrative in this multimedia eco-morality play.

Two words are redefining the medium of dance: Video Projection. In lieu of expensive and unwieldy portable sets, a new generation of traveling productions requires only a theater’s built-in scrim and cyclorama – and an animator does the rest. This is certainly the case with Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined, which I saw last night at Santa Monica’s BroadStage. To bring this ambitious story to life, the nine dancers of the troupe interact with a whole suite of projections, from an arrow traveling across the scrim to a pack of apes clamoring in a courtroom. The performance consists of these animations (Adam Smith and Nick Hillel of YeastCulture), in concert with a bespoke lighting design (Michael Hulls), interactive props and sets (Miriam Buether), original music (Jocelyn Pook) and a dynamic sound design (Gareth Fry) with pre-recorded spoken dialogue. For two hours with intermission, the dancers enact a version of Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories The Jungle Book to a combination of said pre-recorded audio and music. The dancers use their bodies to fill out the words, which come separately through the speakers.

Cast of Jungle Book reimagined (Camilla Greenwell)

As the Artistic and Executive Director of BroadStage Rob Bailis pointed out in a pre-performance aside, Khan’s is not the The Jungle Book we grew up with, whether Dahl’s or Disney’s. Khan’s reinterpretation keeps the character’s names, but takes us, instead of a jungle, through a flooded city in the climate-changed future. A pack of wolves takes in the climate refugee Mowgli (in this version a girl, played by Pui Yung Shum – and it’s pronounced “Mao Glee”); at first the wolves want to kill her, because of the danger she poses as a human in their midst, but wolf mother Raksha makes the case for keeping her before the council of the animals. The projections add dimension to the dancers’ physical portrayal of the wolf pack – a parade of camels, elephants, and giraffes plays across both front and back screens. Raksha wins her case, and Mowgli dances with the bear Baloo and then embarks on a quest to Kaa, a rock-python presented onstage as a series of cardboard boxes held by dancers.

Cast of Jungle Book Reimagined (Camila Greenwell)

Khan’s choreography, which incorporates movements from classical north Indian Katha, breakdancing, contemporary techniques, and hip-hop, achieves a masterful dynamism and counterpoint. It’s at its best in the pure dance sequences, such as at the beginning of the production, when only a tense, textured slow-motion sequence in silhouette sets the tone for the great flood, or when the apes dance in the courtroom, in exquisite mimicry of animal movement with surprising fluidity and poetry. Khan is undoubtedly a genius in stringing together never-before-seen combinations of movements, movement styles, and sounds – his dancers appear to use a body greater than the one they have, in a genre-expanding vocabulary that is distinct from but parallel to peers like Crystal Pite and Aszure Barton.

Max Revell (Camilla Greenwell)

The narrative of the performance, however, may actually ruin the effect of the dancing. The story of Khan’s new Jungle Book (words by Tariq Jordan) is muddled beyond repair and pretentious in its maximalist and virtue-signaling ambitions (what was the job of Dramaturgical Advisor Sharon Clark?). It’s, at once, so hard to follow that it’s illegible even when written out in the program, let alone onstage, but then it resolves in its final moments into one toothless, simplistic moral (Man: bad! Animals: good!). The medium itself is also sadly diluted, the soundtrack of recorded conversations sounding like disjointed mashups of a second-rate audiobook. The form of physical lip-synching the dancers do – acting out soundtracks of pre-recorded speaking – is something I find to be the emperor’s new clothes of contemporary dance. It’s a popular, watered-down combination of theater and dance in which neither emerges with any real distinction.

Jan Mikaela Villanueva (Camilla Greenwell)

The character elements of the production are also obnoxiously random and overdone. In the dénouement, when a human hunter drowns, Mowgli appears behind the sheet that represents the waves, dramatically striding without relevance to the scene. She then slow-motion walks through the animals, holding a gun, shooting it into the air. A symbol of her humanness? A dangerous one-gun salute? This is one of myriad moments that clearly ask for the audience’s pathos but have not earned it (because we have no idea what is happening, so we don’t know why we should care). As with so many performances in 2023, the dancers appear to have been critiqued to perfection, but the narrative and the total cohesion of the production seem to have had not one critical edit.

Cast of Jungle Book reimagined (Camilla Greenwell)

Overall, this performance, even for its sublime dancing and immersive video projections, is a difficult watch for those who require even a semblance of narrative coherence or directorial restraint. Dance once flourished in the presence of narrative; a combination of pantomime, physicality, and costume cues once told stories in their entirety without the presence of words. The problem with this performance is that for a show with so many words, they neither mean much nor evoke poetic possibility. I would say, for this one, stay home. We only have so many years until the great climate-change flood anyway – might as well use them to watch something coherent.

Thomasin Gülgeç* (Camilla Greenwell)

Jungle Book reimagined
presented by BroadStage at The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage
1310 11th St. in Santa Monica CA (parking is free)
Thursday, October 26 at 7:30pm (opening night)
Friday, October 27 at 7:30pm
Saturday, October 28 at 4:00pm
for tickets, call 310.434.3200 or visit BroadStage
tour continues – for dates and cities, visit Jungle Book

photos from previous productions
(*Thomasin Gülgeç is no longer in the company)

Cast of Jungle Book reimagined (Ambra Vernuccio)

Leave a Comment