Mowgli’s Jungle Adventures: A Children’s Ballet

We missed the premiere of Mowgli’s Jungle Adventures (MJA) back in April so when we learned of a free showing at nearby Cain Park, we made a point of going even though thunder showers threatened. MJA is only one of many pieces choreographed by Richard Dickinson, Verb’s associate artistic director. In May we posted a review (https://clevelandconcertdance.com/2019/05/23/verb-cpt-artists-portfolio/)    of Verb at Cleveland Public Theater’s DanceWorks in which we found much to praise in Dickinson’s Paganini Rhapsody. Verb will also be reviving another of Dickinson’s ballets this summer, Carmen: Story of Passion (https://coolcleveland.com/2012/04/danceworks-rocks-cleveland-public-theatre/), which made us reconsider our view of story ballets when it premiered in 2012.

MJA does not disappoint. Dickinson and the Verb dancers retell the well-known story with humor and verve. Adults as well as children in the audience at Cain Park seemed engaged and entertained.

MJA borrows freely from Walt Disney’s 1967 animated musical, Jungle Book. Instead of the Disney songs, though, Dickinson has stitched together a very serviceable score using the music of two Russian composers, Alexander Glazunov and Vasily Kalinnakov. More about the cultural cross currents in this ballet later.

The wheels that turn the story get established in the first few scenes. In a mixture of ballet dancing and acting, we see Black Panther Bagheera (Kate Webb) discover Baby Mowgli (Daniel Cho) abandoned in the jungle and give him over to the care of the wolves (Emily Dietz and Ben Shepard). But soon, against all advice to the contrary, Mowgli leaves the safety of the wolf pack to explore the jungle on his own. The audience knows this is extremely dangerous, for we’ve already seen Shere Khan, the Bengal Tiger (Christina Lindhout), eying Mowgli with a rapt feline gaze.

Fearless and clueless Mowgli proceeds to travel through the jungle meeting one animal after another, often saved from harm by watchful Bagheera. Each animal is instantly identifiable thanks to the beautiful, funny costumes by Janet Bolick. Yet the costumes do not interfere with the dancers’ characterizations of each species, characterizations that play strongly to the children in the audience.  

When they portray animals in MJA, the Verb dancers stand (mostly) upright and make full use of their ballet technique. Their faces are fully visible in Bolick’s costumes and – especially as elephants and monkeys – they look out at the audience with expressions that frankly acknowledge how much fun they’re having.

Sweta Balaji takes a very different approach in portraying Kaa the Python. Trained at Shri Kalaa Mandir Center for Indian Performing Arts (SKM), she of course draws on Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form that originated in South India, rather than ballet. And, unlike the Verb dancers, her facial expression preserves a formal distance. We had another chance to observe the SKM dancers’ use of facial expressions when we watched them perform at Cleveland Public Theater recently. (https://clevelandconcertdance.com/2019/06/20/cpts-danceworks-wraps-up/) We’re not valuing one dance form over another. We’re simply describing two different ways of using the face in performance.

The presence of a Bharatanatyam dancer in a story ballet set in India will remind many of our readers of Jungle Book: The Adventures of Mowgli, a cross-cultural dance production by a dance company based in India, Bharatakalanjali led by the Dhananjayans, and Ohio Ballet led by Heinz Poll, which premiered in 1996 and toured widely, winning the Northern Ohio Live best dance production award for 1996 – 97.

In Disney’s animated Jungle Book, the king of the monkeys was King Louie, a name which undoubtedly went back to jazz vocalist and band leader Louis Prima who supplied the vocals and jazz stylings for that part of the Disney sound track. But Verb’s King Louie (Michael Escovedo) is no jazz man. He is the most exuberant of all the classical dancers, harkening back, perhaps, to Louis XIV of France whose ballet dancing (with the help of sumptuous production values and a brilliant dance double) expressed the grandeur of his reign.

Another notable performance was Baloo the Sloth Bear, played by Antonio Morillo in a fuzzy bear fat-suit. Morillo, who normally projects a serious classical demeanor, completely relaxes into his role as Baloo and shows a side of his talent that we’ve never seen before.

Props, too, to Kate Webb as Black Panther Bagheera and Daniel Cho as Mowgli. They spend the most time on stage and carry us through the story.

We watched Verb perform Mowgli’s Jungle Adventures at Cain Park’s Evans Amphitheatre on June 28, 2019. Shah Capital Management is Producer and Exclusive Sponsor.

You have another chance to see Mowgli’s Jungle Adventures at Ballet Under the Stars on Friday 7/19/2019. It’s FREE but may sell out well before hand so we strongly recommend that you reserve seats online at VerbBallets.org. The 45-minute performances are at 6:15pm and 7:30pm. Free 30-minute all-age dance classes are also at 6:15pm and 7:30pm. It’s at Verb Ballets Center for Dance, a repurposed automobile dealership, 3558 Lee Rd., Shaker Hts., OH 44120. Bring a chair or a blanket.

Many more opportunities to see Verb Ballets perform a varied repertoire this summer, including Carmen: Story of Passion. Go to VerbBallets.org.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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