At the age of 10, Akram Khan played Mowgli in an Indian dance version of The Jungle Book. Now, 37 years later, the choreographer has decided it’s time to revisit Rudyard Kipling’s famed, if problematic, tales. “I wanted to tackle The Jungle Book from my perspective, rather than Kipling’s,” says Khan. “We can’t ignore that he was a racist and an imperialist, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the story was something that I connected with. It had a huge impact on me when I was a child.”
Khan, who is known for melding Indian kathak dance, contemporary dance and theatre in award-winning shows including Desh, Xenos and Until the Lions (as well as performing at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony) is reinventing Kipling’s story through the prism of the 21st century’s most pressing concern: the climate crisis. In The Jungle Book Reimagined, which opens at Leicester’s Curve theatre in April 2022, Mowgli is a climate refugee arriving in London from India to find the streets deserted. The city has been reclaimed by nature and become a jungle.
The world on stage will be created through animation and projection (from Naaman Azhari and Yeast Culture), removing the need to transport large sets – Khan’s nod, as an internationally touring artist, to being more sustainable. Film director Andy Serkis is on board to advise on the creation of the visual world, and musician Anoushka Shankhar will write a song for the show. The writer is actor turned playwright Tariq Jordan.
Kipling’s original stories carry certainty about man’s authority and superiority over the natural world, but Khan’s production illustrates the consequences of that arrogance. He points to Covid as an example. “Nature giving us this tiny invisible virus that we can’t even see that has brought humankind to its knees. If that’s not a curse and a gift at the same time, I don’t know what is.”
Will the pandemic be the impetus for changing how we connect to our environment on a broader scale? “We just don’t have a choice,” he says. “I’ll tell you my problem with our generation: we want change – that I believe – but when it comes to somebody asking, will you change? Then we don’t want to. It’s like my daughter said to me, you’re doing a piece about climate change, well why are you driving a diesel car? And she’s absolutely right. It has to change. I have to change.”
“Look, we are guests on this Earth,” says Khan. “We think we own the Earth, but Earth was here way before us and it’s going to be here way after us. The question is, do we want to fight it, and allow it to, let’s say, cut the cancer out – which is us. Or will we somehow start to surrender to it and find a new way of living which is more conscious of the voice of the Earth?”
The theme of listening is embedded in Khan’s Jungle Book, his Mowgli in tune with nature and able to communicate with animals. “It’s based on this idea, you know we have two ears and one mouth,” says Khan, “but our modern civilisation seems to think that we have two mouths and one ear. We’ve lost the art of listening.” There is one place, however, where true listening still reigns. “Real listening still happens in theatres,” he says. “You surrender yourself and say, I’m buying this ticket in a contract to say I’m going to give you my full attention for the next hour and a half. Television doesn’t have that, but that’s the power of theatre.”
Akram Khan’s The Jungle Book Reimagined is at Curve, Leicester, 2-9 April 2022.