Dancing with wolves in the national capital

The work of one of the world’s greatest contemporary choreographers has never been seen in Canberra – until now.
Five dancers wearing sleeveless organe tops and loose grey pants move-animal-like across on the stage on all fours. Behind them in a black and white digital animation of stylised animals including a rhino, camels and a giraffe.

Akram Khan is one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary dance-makers – which makes it all the more surprising that his work has not been seen in Canberra to date.

ACT audiences – as well as dance lovers from further afield – will soon have the opportunity to rectify this, with Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined playing a short season at Canberra Theatre Centre in February.

Khan’s new dance-theatre production is a vivid reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 short story collection, The Jungle Book, set in an all-too-possible near future. Instead of a wild boy raised by wolves in an Indian forest, here the young hero Mowgli becomes a heroine: a climate change refugee living in an abandoned city that’s slowly returning to its primal state, and who is learning to reconnect with the natural world.

‘Akram says it’s not a children’s show and it’s not an adult’s show; it’s a show for everyone,’ Dan Clarke, Head of Programming at Canberra Theatre Centre, explains.

‘It’s certainly not the Disney Jungle Book; it is a really powerful reimagining of The Jungle Book seen through the eyes of a refugee and dealing with a world that has been devastated by climate change. It has the familiar characters that people know but it’s a very original interpretation.’

Inspired by humanity’s impact on the planet and the potential of future mass extinction events, Khan – who both directs and choreographs the work – said the root cause of such global perils is because of humanity forgetting ‘our connection to our home, our planet. We all inhabit it, we all take from it, and we all build on it, but we have forgotten to return our respect for it. So I believe that we must make changes from the grassroots up if we are to see a brighter future.

‘And so I feel compelled to share the story – lovingly known as The Jungle Book – with children and adults from all cultures, in order to re-learn what we, as a species, have so conveniently forgotten. And I believe that the strongest and deepest way to tell this story is through the magic of dance, music and theatre,’ he said.

Bringing the world to Canberra

Clarke emphasises that the Canberra season of Jungle Book reimagined is the only chance for devotees of Khan’s work who live in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney to see the show unless they’re prepared to travel to Perth or Adelaide Festivals, where the production is also showing.

‘We’re really hoping that we get some visitors from the East Coast to see this production, because Akram’s work has been to Australia a number of times in a number of festivals, so people know the company’s work – and the calibre of the artists working on this production is extraordinary,’ Clarke says.

‘The dancing is absolutely exceptional and very, very inspiring. It’s a two-act show, so it’s a big production, but I think that the whole package – the design, the themes, the video design, the sound design – is really captivating, inspiring and at times, truly mind-blowing.’

The three Canberra performances of Jungle Book reimagined over 2-3 February are part of Canberra Theatre Centre’s commitment to bringing the best work in the country to the national capital.

‘One of the things that I’m really passionate about – that the whole team are really passionate about – is bringing the best artists and performances to Canberra from around Australia, but also looking for opportunities to present world class international acts,’ Clarke explains.

‘We’re looking for collaborations nationally. We’re looking to bring companies from across the country together to develop work and present work in Canberra. And from a presentation perspective, the programming team and I are being really conscious of making sure that we’re bringing stories from around Australia from different locations, from different lived experiences, to Canberra Theatre Centre,’ he says.

Akram Khan Company’s ‘Jungle Book reimagined’ plays Canberra Theatre Centre on 2-3 February 2024. Photo: Ambra Vernuccio.

Clarke also wants to ensure such works do more than just resonate with local audiences – it’s Clarke’s belief that works should also inspire local artists and, where possible, lead to new creative opportunities.

Consequently, the Akram Khan Company’s Canberra season is accompanied by a two-hour workshop for professional and pre-professional dancers on Sunday 4 February following the previous days’ performances.

‘Canberra has a really vibrant and exciting dance community, a very engaged dance community, and I just thought this would be a really great opportunity to bring world-class artists to the capital. It’s a chance to help develop our artists … and to grow the opportunities we can provide that connect local artists and Australian artists with visiting companies,’ Clarke says.

He also believes it’s important to offer new and alluring productions for cultural tourists visiting the ACT.

‘Soon the whole cultural precinct where Canberra Theatre Centre is based could be very different. A transformed Canberra Theatre Centre is being planned right now, including a new major theatre in the not too distant future. And so I’m really passionate about programming works that resonate, obviously with ACT audiences and people in the region, but also about asking, what can we program here that will make people from other areas want to travel to Canberra?’

‘People travel here to visit the National Galleries to see work, so what can we program that is going to make people want to travel to Canberra to see live performance? And Jungle Book reimagined is absolutely such a work, I believe,’ Clarke concludes.

Tickets to the Akram Khan Company’s Jungle Book reimagined at Canberra Theatre Centre from 2-3 February are now on sale.

Learn more about the Akram Khan Repertory Workshop for professional and pre professional dancers in Canberra.

Running from 2-4pm on Sunday 4 February 2024, this exclusive 2 hour workshop is free with any ticket purchase to the Canberra season of Jungle Book reimagined. Delivered by Akram Khan Company (AKC) dancers, you will learn excerpts from AKC company class and repertoire from Jungle Book reimagined with some of the world’s most talented dance artists.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts