Scientists predict that by 2050, 80% of the world’s population will live in cities, being forced inland by rising sea waters and moving away from agricultural societies in search of economic opportunity. By then the world is expected to reach 9.8 billion people; Many of these will be sent to megacities ill-equipped to deal with traffic congestion.
People are moving toward opportunity, away from war and other imminent dangers such as drought and food insecurity. Animals move for the same reasons. Until recently, the chances of seeing an armadillo in Illinois were close to zero. Now? Her totally possible.
The idea of building something permanent like a city suggests that humans have largely abandoned their connection to the Earth. But the city also represents the pulse of human nature, innovation, productivity and artistic expression. This paradox is at the center of Akram Khan’s “The Jungle Book Reimagined,” now playing at the Harris Theater and marking the beginning of the venue’s 20th season of dance shows.
Khan’s story begins in the frighteningly near future, with humans struggling for dry land in a man-made climate crisis. The curtain opens in front of a dozen stoic people in silhouette, standing deftly but slowly beginning to crouch, struggling with the weight on his shoulders – slowly losing it.
One of these people, we later learn, is Mowgli (danced by Pui Yung Shum), who has been separated from his family and finds himself in an abandoned city now inhabited by monsters. He encounters a pack of wolves led by Raksha and Rama, who argue about whether to keep him or not. They eventually appear before a dog council, who accept Mowgli into the pack. They rely on each other’s skills to survive; Mowgli remembers his mother’s teachings at a time when humans and nature were much more harmonious. Threatened with destruction by hunters in search of food and settlement, Mowgli stands by his friends, defends his land, and ultimately chooses to abandon them in search of a safer place.
It’s dark, but “The Jungle Book” is also full of joy and whimsy; is most visible in Mowgli’s interactions with the adorable Bagheera and Baloo. The recorded text comes alive with comedic gestures and physical theater that follow the tempo, timbre and connotation of the dialogue.
Khan’s “The Jungle Book” is miles away from British author Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 novel of the same name; it’s even farther removed from the 1967 Disney movie, which is probably a more familiar reference on this side of the pond. Both “Jungle Books” have been criticized for their colonialist perspectives and exoticization of Indian and African cultures. When Disney released “Jungle Book” on Disney+ in 2019, it included a disclaimer about the film containing “outdated cultural depictions.” Two years later, he removed the film from children’s profiles on this platform.
Khan makes clear in a program note that he was aware of the controversy his source material contained. But what we’ve learned about Khan is that this may have been part of his motivation for doing this. His “Giselle” moved the action, set against the backdrop of the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster, from the enclave of the Rhineland state to Bangladesh. “Creature” took on Mary Shelley’s “Modern Prometheus”; This topic was explored in more detail in his solo exhibition “Xenos” (which Chicago unfortunately never got to see because the set did not arrive on time).
Unlike others that are not overtly complementary pieces but have a similar aesthetic and approach, “Jungle Book” is something entirely new. Gorgeous hand-drawn animation by YeastCulture’s Adam Smith and Nick Hillel (and a team of 10 artists) is projected in front and behind the dancers, creating a 3D world for Mowgli and his friends from a 2D environment.
Aesthetically, it’s magic. Practically speaking, this is genius. The bulk of the “Jungle Book” set consists of just one large video file. This reduces the risk of shipping huge set pieces, and “Jungle Book” also reduces the tour’s carbon footprint. This point was further emphasized by visual designer Miriam Buether for the moving towers, which left the stage mostly empty but comprised of cardboard boxes. Prop maker Marek Pomocki similarly designed the suspicious snake Kaa from several boxes operated by the dancers. The head of these boxes is illuminated green like a lantern.
Approximately 20 actors voiced the characters; Its dialogue is combined with an immersive, cinematic score collaboratively created by composer Jocelyn Pook and sound designer Gareth Fry. Lighting designer Michael Hulls, a frequent collaborator, creates a dull, dirty, post-apocalyptic world, conveniently eschewing any impulse toward conventional beauty. It’s beautiful though, with the occasional splash of amber light adding a glow to some scenes – a pinch of hope in a dim land, I suppose. A few moments shine where every element comes together: Mowgli draws and releases his bow, a sinister human threatens the animal village swallowed by the sea, and a 40-foot-tall animated elephant explains how they and we got here.
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Then there is dancing. Khan designed striking ensemble sections that were disconnected from the rest, sometimes feeling a bit like a “dance break”. But when it comes, it’s a delightfully dual blend of down-to-earth, animalistic playfulness and the existential dread that weighs down each character: punching the ground with wide knees, in a deep crouch; covering eyes, ears and mouth; A cheerful and agile lower body circles the surface of the stage, preparing an almost constant nap pull along the core and upper limbs. Khan’s unique style combines memories from growing up studying kathak, performing modern dance as a young adult, his deep involvement with the English National Ballet, and his pandemic hobby of martial arts. You can’t look at it and find any of these forms alone. These are the sails of Khan’s iconoclastic imagination. The idea is the wind.
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.
Review: “Jungle Book reimagined” (3.5 stars)
When: Saturday until 14.00
Where: Akram Khan Company at Harris Music and Dance Theatre, 205 E. Randolph St.
Duration: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets: $20-$125 at 312-334-7777 harristheaterchicago.org