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Review: Jungle Book Reimagined at Heath Ledger Theatre

Review by Hannah Fredriksson

Akram Khan’s reimagining of The Jungle Book takes the classic story by Rudyard Kipling and delivers a potent message for modern audiences through an innovative blend of contemporary dance, recording, and animation.

Set in a world where oceans have started to swallow up the lands and resources are scarce, this retelling sees Mowgli’s family forced to migrate to seek safety. To an extent it feels dystopian, but that would be ignoring the fact that if humankind continues on its current trajectory, this could very well be a glimpse of our future.

Mowgli finds herself at the mercy of an animal council that is at first cautious of her presence, as they have experienced suffering at the hands of humans. Through misadventures and sharing stories, Mowgli bonds with the animals and is accepted as part of the animal council. Their peace is disturbed as a hunter enters their lands, however as a human Mowgli is able to take a stand to put an end to his destruction.

The entirety of the soundtrack is pre-recorded, including music, sound effects, lo-fi radio snippets (reminiscent of Frontier Psychiatrist by The Avalanches), and dialogue. As each character ‘speaks’, the dancer that portrays them moves deliberately and exaggeratedly, often underscoring every syllable to ensure they stand out amongst the other dancers moving on stage. Quite often the dialogue is completely independent of music, resulting in crisp choreography that responds entirely to vocal cadence. With most of the dancers dressed uniformly, the various animal characters are differentiated through physicality; the wolves skulk smoothly across the stage on all fours, while the monkeys move a bit lopsidedly with their arms and legs akimbo. 

Animation is projected on the rear cyclorama and a sheer screen at the front of the stage, giving a multi-layered effect that sandwiches the dancers like the contents of a shadow box. The concept is exceedingly simple, however the device enables detailed animation to transport viewers swiftly from one setting to another, or into flashbacks or hallucinations. The performers are truly engulfed in their shifting surroundings, whether it be turbulent waters, grassy fields, or gentle rainfall. The overall effect is like being immersed in an animated graphic novel spliced with live-action performance. 

With the animation doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of defining different settings, the remainder of the staging is comprised of walls made of stacks of cardboard boxes, a recyclable material in a haphazard arrangement that reflects the dissolution of society. The material is also utilised in many of the props. While most of the characters are portrayed by the dancers or pure animation, the snake Kaa is depicted through the use of some creative cardboard choreography. 

While humorous at times, for the most part the performance carries a somber tone that is associated with irreversible loss. Loss of a home, loss of family, loss of hope. That being said the story ends on an uplifting note as Mowgli discovers her purpose to defend nature and moves towards fulfilling it.

Akram Khan has directed and choreographed a chillingly beautiful and sobering story that examines humanity’s often one-sided relationship with animals and nature, delivering it with passion and conviction. The innovative multimedia approach leaves viewers with a sense of awe that ensures the message will not be forgotten any time soon. 

Image Supplied


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