When Mary Zimmerman was initially approached by Disney Theatrical Group to adapt and direct the stage version of The Jungle Book, her very first impulse “was to take the forms of Indian representation seriously within the aesthetic of doing this show.”
Over the last two years, she and her designers traveled to India twice to observe and research Indian forms of art, music and movement, and have integrated those forms into the production “at every level and in every scene.”
One of the most noticeable ways you’ll see Indian art represented in The Jungle Book is through movement. The story of The Jungle Book unfolds in the jungles of India, and as part of their commitment to bring authentic Indian dance into the production, Mary Zimmerman invited Chicago’s Natya Dance Theatre artistic director Hema Rajagopalan to be part of the creative team. “I was honored to be asked,” Hema says. “It was wonderful that they wanted Indian dance to be part of the choreography.” She is serving as serving as Indian dance consultant on the production, working with Choreographer Christopher Gattelli to develop a stage vocabulary that brings the story to life and honors the culture it was drawn from.
As founder and artistic director of Natya Dance Theatre in Chicago, Hema has been nationally recognized in the US by seven choreographic awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and also is a recipient of the coveted EMMY Award. She was the first choreographer working in an Indian tradition to be selected among leading Chicago choreographers by the Chicago Dancemakers Forum to create new work. She knew from the beginning that this production was going to be something special. “It was clear from our first meeting,” she says, “that this was an extraordinary collaborative effort and that this was going to be a great opportunity to bring Indian dance to a new, young audience in the context of a favorite story.”
Getting The Jungle Book to the stage has been a journey of more than 100 years. First there was the 1893 short story collection by Rudyard Kipling. Then, in 1967, the Disney film. Now it’s time for a new incarnation. But Natya is no stranger to collaboration. In 2006, the company collaborated with Lookingglass Theatre Company and the Chicago Children’s Choir on Sita Ram, an original rock opera adaptation of the Indian epic, Ramayana. The production played to sold-out houses and was remounted at the Harris Theater in 2012 on a considerably larger scale. The 2012 production was also a great success and bolstered Hema’s confidence in the power of collaborations to bring Indian dance to today’s diverse audiences. Natya has also worked collaboratively with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, as well as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.