There’s something remarkably charming about the mix of the traditional and the contemporary – as if two completely different cultures and eras were merged into one. “Jangala” by the Oakland Ballet Company is an example.
The production is the brainchild of Graham Lustig, Artistic Director of the Oakland Ballet Company, who wanted to bring the story of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” to the stage. “Jangala” merges contemporary ballet with Bharatanatyam, a traditional classical dance form from South India. For this production, the company partnered with guest artist Nadhi Thekkek of Nava Dance Theatre, a San Francisco-based Bharatanatyam dance company. The play premiered at Middlesex County College in New Jersey in 2013 and most recently at Skyline High School in Oakland on Saturday.
The performance opens with a bharatanatyam piece by dancers from the Nava Dance Theater including Thekkek, and was a refreshing and playful routine based on a story from the popular Indian comic series “Amar Chitra Katha”. It tells the story of an elephant trying to save his home, the forest, from being destroyed by a forester. The piece is accompanied by live music, adding to the general mood of joy that the routine embodies. The dancers are decked out in bharatnatyam saris of various bright colors, showcasing the forest backdrop. This opening piece perfectly presents the larger story of “Jangala”.
“Jangala” not only merges Bharatnatyam with contemporary ballet, but also includes movements from Bhangra and Bollywood. In an effort to combine very different dance styles, however, the routine is sometimes too chaotic for the audience to follow completely – there is an obvious distinction between Thekkek’s bharatanatyam and that performed by the dancers of the ballet company. .
Additionally, the various acts in the performance suddenly shift from soft classical music to mainstream Bollywood, echoing shifts in dance forms from traditional ballet to a Bollywood-bhangra fusion. The interplay between these sounds and clashing movements can be confusing to the audience.
Nevertheless, Sanchit Babbar, an alumnus of the prestigious Ailey School, is suitable for the lead role of Mowgli. It’s exciting to see him go from ballet to bharatanatyam to bhangra, instinctively and without flinching. The expressiveness of his whole body perfectly illustrates the transition from a baby to a young boy, passing from the jungle to the urban and human world. As Shere Khan, Tori Jahn is also stunning to look at; his movements are fierce and strong, yet majestic, perfectly capturing the essence of a tiger.
That the ensemble is a collection of experienced and exceptional dancers is evidenced in the terrific way in which they deliver the various themes of the story – the theme of unity, in particular.
The relationship between Mowgli and his two friends, Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther, played by dancers Calvin Thomas and Frankie Lee Peterson III respectively, is particularly beautiful. The two animals teach Mowgli the laws of the jungle, and the production dedicates an entire scene to them – a version of “The Bare Necessities” scene from the Disney adaptation that everyone knows and loves. Their movements center on mutual support, which is highlighted as they constantly and gracefully lift Mowgli and carry him from one end of the stage to the other. The audience sees a new friendship forming – a truly heartwarming experience.
As a production that encapsulates dance forms from various corners of the world, certain performative aspects of “Jangala” remain confused and ambiguous. Yet the immensely emotional dancers, in their genuine attempt to embrace Indian dance styles, are mesmerizing to watch. The continuous switching between styles of music fixes the audience’s gaze on the stage, as do the impressive dancers of the Oakland Ballet Company and the Nava Dance Theatre. “Jangala” is a wonderful fusion of old and new, classic and contemporary.
“Jangala” will be played Friday at San Leandro High School.
Contact Anoushka Agrawal at [email protected].