Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book-which first appeared in 1894 as a magazine serial-has proven to be a timeless and universally appealing set of stories beloved to people everywhere from Russia to India, where they are set. Like many Americans, my experience with the moral-laden fables of an Indian child raised by wolves in the jungle began with Disney’s classic 1967 animated film. I hadn’t really thought about it much until hiking in the Sierras recently-California’s version of the jungle, perhaps. Late one night, a bear smelled something sweet in one of our packs, and by the time we had chased it away, bits of trail mix and bear slobber-covered clothes were strewn about the clearing, inspiring us to launch into a hearty, early-morning rendition of “Bare Necessities” from the Disney film.
Those planning to catch State Street Ballet’s rendition of The Jungle Book opening at the Granada on Saturday, October 10, be warned: There’s as much difference between the Disney film and this production as there is between the animated sloth bear Baloo and a California brown bear. This production is the first ballet adaptation of a story that has been modified for print, stage, television, and animated productions all over the world. It features all the familiar characters, but with an original score by Czech composer Milan Svoboda and choreography by Rodney Gustafson and Gary McKenzie. The result is a fresh interpretation of a legendary story that uses movement to convey the struggle between the various anthropomorphic animal characters. In order to develop unique physicality for each character, the cast members Googled the animals they portray in the show and used their findings to create signature movements. Mowgli, played by Colombian Jose Gonzalez, crouches low like a jungle creature when English safari hunters come bashing through the foliage. “I try to be like the animals; almost everything is a jump,” he explained.
Though they’ve only had one month to set choreography for The Jungle Book, they’ve managed to develop distinct characters that come across clearly even in rehearsal. Having a diverse, international cast helps. With his dark, exotic features, Mongolian Bayaraa Badamsambuu takes the role of Sher Khan. “Bad guys, I think, are my specialty,” said the Russian-trained dancer, who played evil genius von Rothbart in State Street’s production of Swan Lake last season. Rodney Gustafson, who is the major choreographer as well as the artistic director and founder of the company, has been working on the show for some time, but it only really began to take shape with the seasonal return of the performers. “All of this infrastructure is Jell-O-form until the dancers arrive,” said Jennifer Rowe, one of the company’s lead dancers, who is playing the part of the English girl who seduces Mowgli away from his jungle repose.
Costume design has been a laborious but satisfying challenge for A. Christina Giannini and her assistant, Anaya Cullen. Expect bright colors, expressive makeup, and elaborate but functional outfits for the various jungle creatures. “Each costume has its own life,” said Cullen, noting that because of all the jumping and lifting the dancers will do, it has been essential to minimize costume accessories. In addition to seven monkeys and a number of nine-foot-tall tree characters on stilts, the costumers have been hard at work on standout costumes for key characters-from the dark, feline grace of Sher Khan and Bagheera to the fuzzy lumpiness of Baloo. One of the more stunning arrays is the flower-topped, loop-hemmed gown of the dancing water lily, whose movements flow like the tranquil waters of a lily pad-covered pond.
Svoboda’s diverse score, which is everything from playful to pensive, has been used for European theatrical productions of The Jungle Book, but since this is the first ballet rendition of the story, he is scheduled to fly out from the Czech Republic-at personal expense-to see the show’s opening. “It’s all new choreography, new costumes, new sets-it’s all new for this show,” said Cullen, adding that due to a last-minute donation, there may be a pleasant surprise when the monkeys begin dancing en masse.
The first group to see The Jungle Book at the Granada will not be Svoboda or Santa Barbara’s cadre of arts aficionados, but rather a theater full of school children. The special show takes place the Friday before the official opening and was made available to young school children as part of the Granada’s Yellow School Bus educational outreach program. “That’s our audience 10 years from now,” said Cullen. “Let’s get them in there so they know what ballet is all about.”
State Street Ballet presents The Jungle Book to the public at the Granada Theatre on Saturday, October 10, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 11, at 2 p.m. For tickets, call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.