Cover Akram Khan's Jungle Book Reimagined (Photo: courtesy of Ambra Vernuccio)

Coming to Hong Kong this week, this new dance stage adaptation of Kipling’s timeless story imagines a world where nature has been devastated by mankind

Kipling’s celebrated story The Jungle Book—with Mowgli the “man-cub” raised by wolves, Shere Khan the tiger, Baloo the bear and other jungle animals—is re-imagined as a contemporary cautionary tale about climate change by British dancer and choreographer of Bangladeshi descent, Akram Khan, who is celebrated for incorporating the ancient Indian dance of kathak in his work.

Running on November 11 and 12 at Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the new stage production, which Khan calls “a dansical”, is set in a fictional time when nature, which suffers from climate change brought by mankind, takes its revenge. It features storytelling, dance and animation projection elements—and a female Mowgli.

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This production by the Akram Khan Company, created in collaboration with Hong Kong’s New Vision Arts Festival and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA), will feature Hong Kong dancer Pui Yung Shum, who is a member of Akram Khan Company, and Hong Kong-based Filipina dancer and HKAPA student Jan Mikaela Villanueva as Mowgli.

Khan talks to Tatler ahead of the show about the creative process, his preference for Mowgli to superheroes, why Bruce Lee inspires him, and Asian representation in the dance scene.

What made you want to reinterpret The Jungle Book?

My children. I wanted to create a portal to talk about the issues that they’re inheriting. One of the major, life-threatening issues is climate change. My daughter, who is nine, and my son, seven, are studying that in school. They asked me questions, and I don’t know how to respond, because we and our parents’ generation are the culprits of it. This family show was created not only for children but for adults as well.

How do you convey the theme of reconnecting with nature through body movements?

Generally, artists don’t work in the way other human beings work, which trusts intellect and information above instinct. We’ve lost that art and skill to navigate an unfamiliar place. Conversely, [nomadic peoples] still know that; they know how to smell and feel the wind, they can locate themselves by looking at the stars [while] urban dwellers depend on GPS.

For this show, my dancers go back to their instincts. Instead of being the sole author of the show, I’m more like a parent with ten children who mess up the house. I create a space where they can create chaos. I pick things out and organise them. A lot of the process is designed and navigated with instinct.

But of course, there are scenes where the vocabulary [of dance] comes out of me, such as the scene in the second part of the show, where the elephant Hathi reminds us of where we came from and heading towards.

What types of dances can we expect to see in The Jungle Book?

My speciality is kathak (a classical Indian dance) and contemporary dance, but the dancers in The Jungle Book are varied. And our creative process is like a pressure cooker, in which genres collapse into each other, so you don’t know which genre the dances belong to anymore.

You were cast as Mowgli for a different dance show when you were ten. Did that influence your current production in any way?

Not the artistic concept. But I wanted to go back to something that I feel very close to. That small, wonderful Indian classical dance production has always stayed with me. The Disney animation too—Mowgli was the only hero I could relate to. This boy could be with nature seamlessly and fluidly and that’s something I’ve always wanted to be.

Many years later, just recently, my daughter was watching the Disney animation again. I thought, most children and adults, who had seen it when they were small, will know the story. So I used to use it as a framework to get the message of climate change across.

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How is your Jungle Book different from Kipling’s original, as well as other adaptations?

Disney took the story of Mowgli from Kipling’s book, which is huge, [but in that,] Mowgli is literally just a side character. I’m a huge fan of Kipling’s story, and I’m not disclaiming that he loved imperialism, and that was very problematic, but I believe he’s a genius [in writing].

So I said, “how do we take this known story and look at it through another person’s lens—the lens of my daughter?” The fact that Mowgli is a girl in my version was due to her. She said, “Papa, you’re always talking about seeing it from the female perspective. Why is Mowgli a boy then?” So we decided to make our Mowgli a southeast Asian girl, which is a huge shift from the original. I think there was some beautiful, important things in Kipling’s Jungle Book that still remain and are real.

How is it different from your previous dance productions?

Usually, my work is a more cryptic and metaphorical, and I worked with poetry and works with dialogues. But I didn’t want to go in that direction this time, because we are having families come to the show.

This is the first time we have worked with an entire text script, written by Tariq Jordan. But the world isn’t simple enough to be explained in words alone. I [also] needed the body. There’s a simplicity in the body that is still honest and more direct than words sometimes.

Which artist do you look up to or have influenced your dance work?

When I did Xenos [in 2018], I took inspiration from kathak and a lot from my interpretation of martial arts. I hadn’t studied any martial arts before the pandemic, but everybody kept saying, “you must have studied martial art because you move very dynamically, very fast and quite explosively.” In truth, I’ve only ever [mimicked] Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali. They are my superheroes.

Do you see a more diverse representation in dance compared to when you first started dancing in the 1980s?

Change happens in “four seasons”. First, people change when they hurt enough that they have to; second, they change when they see enough that they’re inspired to; third, they change when they learn enough that they want to; finally, they change when they receive enough that they are able to. One of those four is happening.

But I’m also very aware that [while] there are more [non-white] faces in Hollywood, but still, who is running Hollywood?

Just hypothetically, if I’m putting an Asian female dancer in my show [simply] because there are not enough women in my work and I’m under the pressure of the world, that’s not change. Change has to happen at the gatekeepers’ level. Who is on my board and my company? Do we have diversity there? That’s what matters because they are the policymakers with me. The change happens with the policymakers, and not by putting a brown, Asian or black person in a show, which is superficial. It’s important, but it’s only one part of it.

Find out more at nvaf.gov.hk

“Up-close with Stars” is a monthly cultural series where Tatler spotlights top performing arts talents on their latest achievements and get to the heart of subjects that matter to culture and society.

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