Kipling gets eco-makeover in Akram Khan’s Jungle Book Reimagined

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“This is not a children’s show; this is not an adults’ show,” insists Akram Khan, director of Jungle Book Reimagined, which premiered at The Curve in Leicester. “This is everybody’s show.” If only. Sadly, despite clever, multi-layered projection by YeastCulture, a Jocelyn Pook score and fluid, fleet-footed movement for 10 versatile dancers, Khan’s multinational co-production is let down by drab sets and costumes, a tendentious script, an uninvolving narrative arc and the dead weight of its moral message.

Climate change was a key theme of Khan’s Outwitting the Devil and of Creature, his Frankenstein/Woyzeck mash-up for English National Ballet. Now it is Rudyard Kipling’s turn for an eco-makeover. The Jungle Book’s orphaned hero, Mowgli, is recast as a victim of rising floodwater who must learn to coexist with the animals who have survived the man-made catastrophe.

Kipling’s original stories have worn surprisingly well. The animal characters are vividly voiced and their behaviour meticulously observed. Kaa, the snake, makes “loops and figures of eight with his body, and soft, oozy triangles that melted into squares”. Such descriptions are a gift for animator and choreographer but Khan cussedly fights shy of any movement motifs that might help the audience tell one animal from another among his identically dressed cast.

While you admire his avoidance of cliché, this refusal to differentiate between species is just plain perverse, muddying the narrative and sapping potential entertainment value. Animals are fun to do, after all: think of Frederick Ashton’s chickens or the witty menagerie in Matthew Hart’s much-missed Peter and the Wolf. When Matthew Bourne and Richard Sharples devised a serpent for Children of Eden back in 1991, they used a conga line of boatered boys in snakeskin suits; Khan’s low-tech cobra is sketched with half a dozen cardboard boxes. The Lion King it ain’t.

Khan’s dancers are in constant competition with Adam Smith’s enchanting animation, a loving pastiche of Kipling’s own exquisite Just So woodcuts which inevitably pulls focus from the live action. It’s magical when the real and animated worlds interact, but these moments are few and far between and the pure dance sequences, while powerful, seldom drive the story forward.

Instead, Khan has the dancers “do the actions” to a pre-recorded soundtrack. This can be a neat trick — Crystal Pite’s Olivier Award-winning 2020 Revisor was a brilliant example — but Tariq Jordan’s script is doggedly expository. Plot points land heavily (“In the beginning was the jungle . . .”) and the text lacks the playful child-friendliness of Kipling‘s storytelling style. The dialogue comes to life when Tom Davis-Dunn brings some much-needed humour and energy to the role of Baloo the bear, earning the only laughs of a long evening.

★★★☆☆

Touring internationally to August 28, akramkhancompany.net

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, choreographer Blanca Li, her dancers and a crack team of gofers and technicians are chaperoning wired-up punters around the backstage areas of London’s Barbican in the virtual reality extravaganza Le Bal de Paris. Your Chanel-gowned avatar gatecrashes the party and the VR headset floods your mind with a ravishing Busby Berkeley fantasia of mermaids, waterlilies and chandeliers. Not quite as engaging and dramatic as the immersive The War of the Worlds, but I can hardly wait for the colouring book.

★★★☆☆

To May 28, barbican.org.uk

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