Matthew Paluch sees Akram Khan's Jungle Book reimagined
|Title||Jungle Book reimagined|
|Company||Akram Khan Company|
|Venue||Sadler's Wells, London|
|Date||5 April 2023|
Most synopses of present-day contemporary dance feature the words climate and/or migrant (refugee). I get it, as both are desperate situations in our current reality and, as a maker, if narrative is your thing, why look elsewhere? These topics give you the freedom of being deep without necessary specifics – discussing the bigger human experience etc. But they're also doom & gloom central.
Nowadays though, even existing narrative is given a run for its money more often than not. Reimagined, reinterpretation, re-re. Basically, allowing creators to do what they want, and if the audience don't get it, it's their problem.
Akram Khan is a big deal. He has been for a while in his own right, and then very much so as the ‘voice of the future' at English National Ballet during Tamara Rojo's reign.
Now we see him returning to Sadler's Wells with his own company for the London premiere of Jungle Book reimagined, a work from August 2022 taking Rudyard Kipling's 1894 novel and ‘retelling' it to a 21st century audience.
Sources allude that the original prose is somewhat autobiographical and, though set in the jungle with mostly animal characters, the crux of the story is very much about humanity and geographic context.
Kipling uses the jungle and animal kingdom to analyse themes such as abandonment, fostering, law, and freedom. Khan's version is housed in a dance-theatre framework and focuses on “a family torn apart as they escape their homeland ravaged by the impact of climate change”.
As is the case with most zeitgeist, multidisciplinary creations there's a veritable army of creatives involved, including Khan as choreographer of course:
Script: Tariq Jordan
Dramaturgy: Sharon Clark
Original score: Jocelyn Pook
Sound design: Gareth Fry
Lighting: Michael Hulls
Visual stage design: Miriam Buether
Video design and animation: YeastCulture
And 10 dancers, let's not forget!
Often, I miss simpler times… empty stages, modest costuming, and the brilliance of pure dance. There really isn't that much around currently, so we must take what Sadler's Wells (et al) see appropriate to programme as ‘dance' and excavate.
And in reality, my fears are founded. Jungle Book reimagined is a long night of dance-theatre… with the emphasis most definitely on theatre. No one can deny the slickness of the production, but I'd argue it's to be expected considering it's a London premiere as opposed to a world one. The dancers are wonderful though, and truly engaged throughout, which says a lot. They do the work absolute justice – but what of the work itself?
In the bigger sense it didn't have any major impact on me – choreographically or emotionally. But visually, yes. The animation is very powerful, and the narrated text works productively as an omnipresent guide to the unfolding story. But do animation and text qualify as (narrative) dance?
Khan primarily uses (a lot of) animalistic movement traits to transport the characters around the space for obvious reasons. Mostly on all fours, which feels a little formulaic in choreographic reality. Taking inspiration from nature should be utilised and developed and not just taken for granted.
The strongest points movement-wise always happen when accompanied by (recognisable in form as) music. The original score includes numerous time signatures and styles and also features a sample of Greta Thunberg's “how dare you?” speech. These musical themes bring out the best in Khan's creativity: phrasing, flow, suspension, and gestural dynamics. There's lots to savour in the four or five actual dance interludes. One of the most impactful being a flock in flight vignette that uses bourrée and wing style arm movements to create a potent, Swan Lake reminiscent atmosphere.
The text grated however – or rather the delivery and use of it did. The narrated voices are heavily characterised, animalesque interpretations interspersed with grunts etc. And they tire quickly. Khan additionally uses the text as a vehicle for music visualisation, so the word phrasing is physicalised through both rhythm and meaning. It's something we're familiar to seeing in the work of Crystal Pite with Betroffenheit and Revisor both being key examples. I didn't love it there, or here, as it mostly feels one dimensional – bound and anxiety inducing is the overriding flavour.
Other sections see the use of mime as movement communicator. Kaa the python is realised through five (maybe six) dancers all carrying a cardboard box to represent parts of the whole animal form. A cubist dragon of sorts! Clever yes, but progressive? The whole night for that matter… perhaps it's developing the genre of dance-theatre, but I don't think it's doing much for contemporary dance.
Khan seems at his most removed from Kathak as a discipline in this work. Perhaps the animals are responsible? Though I did see some moments of recognisable Khan language, most clearly in one of the dance interludes accompanied by aggressive, percussive music. It took me right back to Dust for English National Ballet in 2014 (with a score also by Pook) and the unforgettable, vivid duality of suspended spirals and punched impact. This I enjoyed, to the point that it made me yearn for what came before, rather than focus on the present.
Long story short: it's a skilled production that will please many but would also benefit from editing (duration wise), and some self-analysis re movement language excavation and plausible rebalancing.
Furthermore, Sadler's Wells needs to keep asking difficult questions about programming choices as what they offer will undoubtedly educate their audience. At the moment I'd propose that most aren't capable of understanding, let alone appreciating pure dance as their taste hasn't been accustomed to it. We make our own monsters. Awks.
Recent comments concerning the International Draft Works (showing till 6 April) at the Royal Opera House have been following a similar vein. The evening sees the Royal Ballet come together with international companies to “give audiences an opportunity to see the direction choreography is taking around the world” and to witness “new works… explore movement at the choreographic cutting edge”.
A pertinent question, no? What exactly is the choreographic cutting edge of the current dance scene… and who is responsible for shaping, defining, and supporting it?
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and is currently on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.