Akram Khan has never shied away from tackling the weightiest of topics: injustice, inequity, existential angst, war, environmental degradation, and the crises humankind inflicts upon itself and the world. The skill and exceptional talent with which he, his company and collaborators deliver these profound themes turns what, in less gifted hands, might be a dry and depressing reproach into poignant and beautiful magic, always tinged with hope.

As the curtain rises, the shadowy figures of 10 dancers stand in static pose against a green backdrop on an empty stage, while snippets of radio broadcasts fade in and out warning of drought, flood, fire, rising sea levels and the impending destruction of human civilisation. With almost imperceptible speed the figures begin to hunch and stoop, as if transforming into animal physicality, and as the lights come up, we see they each hold small boxes up to the sky, drought-thirsty and as if hoping for rain.

When it arrives, the rain comes in an animated deluge projected onto the front of the stage, the volume of water reflected in sound as well as vision. From the backdrop projection we see this is not set in the jungle of Kipling’s imagination, but rather a post-apocalyptic cityscape surrounded by rising seas, devoid of humans.

The animation transforms the stage into a stormy sea on which clusters of climate refugees cling to shipping containers tossed about on the waters, the focus on one container that carries a young girl and her mother. When the child falls into the ocean and is rescued by whales, we are transported with her into the degraded cityscape where a wolf pack finds and presents her to the animal council which decides to let her stay, giving her the name Mowgli.

The familiar characters of Kipling’s story are still here but transformed – Baloo is an elderly dancing bear who escaped from his captors, providing familiar comic moments which provide relief from the desolation of the story and setting; Bagheera is an albino panther once kept prisoner as a palace pet, and the Bandar-log are former lab monkeys who, like the other animals, have been left traumatised by their human captors. The rock python, Kaa, is impressively and sinuously rendered by several dancers wielding boxes.

adelaide festival jungle book reimagined

Mowgli ends up in a post-apocalyptic urban jungle in Akram Khan Company’s Jungle Book Reimagined. Photo Camilla Greenwell / supplied

The immensity of Khan’s themes can only be delivered with impact if weighted with an equal immensity of skill, intelligence and imagination, and Jungle Book Reimagined does not disappoint. It results from another of Khan’s thoughtful collaborations, not just with the company’s outstanding dancers, but with an extensive team of creatives at the top of their respective fields.

The interweaving of choreography, dance, spoken narrative – which includes snippets from Greta Thunberg’s “How Dare You” speech to the United Nations – projected animation, soundscape and music cannot be faulted. There is nothing superfluous here; every element is perfectly integrated.

Dramaturg Sharon Clark, writer Tariq Jordan’s dialogue-rich script, award-winning composer Jocelyn Pook’s music, Michael Hulls’ lighting, Gareth Fry’s soundscape, and production company YeastCulture’s integration of stage and projection are all worthy of mention. As, of course, is the exceptional performance of the dancers who enter fully into the expression of their animal characters, their movements perfectly synchronised with the recorded dialogue each delivers so there is never any doubt as to who is “speaking” on stage.

The poignant, emotional force typical of Akram Khan Company’s productions is at its peak here. Khan’s productions are evidence of the power of the arts to push for transformation in the world. This, as well as the exceptional beauty of his productions, earn him a place as one of the great dancers and choreographers of our time.

The final performances of Jungle Book Reimagined are at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, March 16.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Festival coverage here.

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