Visionary choreographer and director Akram Khan is already a mainstay at Lincoln Center: Several of his works have been presented there in the past two decades, including ma as part of the 2006 Great Performers series and XENOS during the 2018 White Light Festival, which was also his final solo dance performance. Now Khan returns to Lincoln Center in November with one of his most imaginative productions, Jungle Book reimagined, an illuminating adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling original and the beloved Disney animated film that has added relevance in our troubled times. Jungle Book reimagined runs November 16–18 at Lincoln Center.
Khan—who was struck by seeing Disney’s The Jungle Book as a child, since the young boy Mowgli looked just like him—found the material he wanted after the 2020 COVID lockdowns began. “I realized during that period that I needed to look at stories and connect them with the crises we’re having now—otherwise it means nothing,” he explains. “For me, it was seeing my children study the climate crisis—which is also a crisis about culture. Our modern narrative is that we control nature, and we can do as we wish. When COVID hit and changed that narrative, I felt that The Jungle Book was a good canvas to talk about climate change because it already was in the original.”
Kipling’s classic collection of stories is considered problematic because of its treatment of white imperialism in India. Khan’s update instead makes Mowgli a young girl who is a refugee at the mercy of the climate crisis. Khan gives his then eight-year-old daughter credit for the changes. “During the lockdown, my daughter wouldn’t leave the study while I was zoom calls,” he laughs. “She asked me why does Mowgli have to be a boy—why not a girl? As I did, she loves the Disney version. As a young child, she would converse with imaginary animals by being an animal herself, usually a wolf. She felt she could trust animals more than humans. I can see why."
Khan’s daughter also prompted his innovative visual design for Jungle Book reimagined, which, unlike earlier works that involved much larger sets and lighting apparatuses, is much lighter on its dancing feet. “My daughter said that I talk about climate change in my work but I don’t do anything about it—and we really weren’t doing anything about it,” he admits. “So I decided we had to change the way we work. I spoke to my team and said let’s come up with a production with less of a carbon footprint.”
Jon Nakagawa, Senior Director, Contemporary Programs, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, has worked with Khan on all of his productions at Lincoln Center and explains that Jungle Book reimagined is “an eco-friendly touring production. Instead of huge sets, it has a scrim, upon which are projected both animation and other visuals. We also use local boxes onstage that we can recycle, so (the entire production) addresses how we now tour the arts internationally.” Khan adds, “Restrictions in one area give freedom in others, enabling us to think differently.”
For Jungle Book reimagined, Khan is also collaborating with several superb artists in their own right: composer Jocelyn Pook, librettist Tariq Jordan, creative associate Mavin Khoo, and dramaturg Sharon Clark.
“The common denominator is they have a unique voice and a unique way of looking at things,” he says. “Best of all, they’re very good listeners. We’re a generation that talks before we listen: we have two ears and one mouth, but we use the mouth more. If you rearrange the letters of ‘listen,’ you get ‘silent.’ As The Jungle Book shows, nature gives us a sense of deep stillness, a sense of silence. There’s a calming effect. And my collaborators are deeply connected to each other and have a deep ability to listen.”
“Akram’s work is treasured around the world,” Nakagawa says, noting that Jungle Book reimagined perfectly aligns with how Lincoln Center itself has been reimagined since the pandemic. “Lincoln Center is a leader in diversity, equality, and inclusion along with artistic innovation—and Akram’s work fits all those categories. He has reimagined a classic to speak to our current time and his innovative way of putting this work on tour speaks to how we should deal with climate change. Both his practicality and his artistry fit within the new paradigm of programming at Lincoln Center."