Interview: Jan Mikaela Villanueva

The Jungle Book reimagined dancer discusses bringing Mowgli into the 21st century

feature (adelaide) | Read in About 5 minutes
Published 06 Mar 2024
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Jungle Book reimagined photo by Camilla Greenwell

The Akram Khan Company’s re-imagining of Kipling’s The Jungle Book seeks to strip the old-world lens of colonisation from the source and instead focuses on the chaos of climate change through the experiences of Mowgli.

Mowgli is stranded and trapped by the circumstances of the chaotic ecosystem that humans have deformed and finds herself making friends with the animals that have overtaken the infrastructure of the city, which has been ravaged by extreme weather. For Jan Mikaela Villanueva, who plays Mowgli, there has always been a strong call to arms when it comes to raising awareness about the state of the environment. “I was always a big advocate around climate change. I did a lot of research for essays about how humanitarian action impacts the environment. That was when I was 10 years old and now, 14 years later, it actually felt like destiny to be able to join Jungle Book reimagined. It’s such a responsibility and a privilege to carry this important message to the world."

It is an important message of care, empathy and action; of reflection and responsibility. A message of connection and custodianship to planet Earth. A message that should be heard by everyone. As Villanueva explains, "This show is intentionally family-friendly because it’s important for all minds to see this, the younger generation of course but the older generation too. It’s important to remember what our ancestors shared with us. We live in such a fast-paced society we can sometimes forget who we once were and sometimes that’s actually where the answers lie. You can think you know so much about a culture but there’s always more to know. I think it’s so important to keep all cultures alive for this reason. Like in the Philippines, we look to new things but always with a sturdy foundation of cultural tradition."

Photo by Camilla Greenwell

As we touch on the vein of legacy, it’s interesting to note that Akram Khan, the artistic visionary at the helm of the dance company, also played Mowgli as a 10-year-old boy growing up in India. History reflects itself again and he imparted advice to Villanueva about inhabiting the character that the two have had the serendipity of sharing. "I specifically remember Akram telling me to tap into my inner child," Villanueva says. "The child that has no limits and no possibilities and just be open to everything. Not a touch of doubt, anger or sadness. Feeling the fragility of a young child being exposed to all this heavy stuff. He stressed the importance of the role too – all the characters are important but Mowgli is a vital connection point between the show and the audience. She is a very intentional character and has to be in order to make that connection stick."

The idea of the macro becomes too heavy to hold onto so we start delving into the more personal aspects of performing and the nature of being tasked with portraying the intensive journey that Mowgli finds herself in. "As the only human in the piece, Mowgli is extremely empathetic and as the performer, I end the show quite drained due to the wide emotional spectrum that Mowgli engages with. Being able to interact with all the different characters and personalities on stage is quite amazing. That’s something special for me: I get to see everyone’s character journey unfolding on stage. We also swap around a bit so today I ended up playing the part of a wolf when required. Being able to spread the message while going through a completely different anatomical structure is fascinating and rewarding for me."

From feelings in the moment to a reflective view on the devising process, Villanueva also speaks of the meticulous and collaborative calibration process of immersive mixed-media performances. "With the impact of Covid, Akram decided he wanted to merge different mediums to create the set and the props in order to travel light," she says. "This time it was animation, text and sound. It’s the first time I’ve worked so heavily with animation through such a huge projection. It took about three to four weeks in a black box theatre just micro-adjusting all of the sounds, lighting and animation to line up together. The scale of the animation and getting used to reacting to the sheer size of it took a while but it makes for a fantastic effect."

This production boasts a bevy of unique aspects to explore – from the cavalcade of characters portrayed to the re-interpretation of an old classic. From the many mediums utilised to the wide demographic it’s aimed at. The piece is potent and in an age of bland re-makes, it is nice to see something reimagined and deftly re-engineered with immense knowledge of the source material.

"We come from all over the world in the Akram Khan Company and it’s so magical that we get to share this story to different cultures in different landscapes."

Kaurna Yerta eagerly awaits the sharing.



Jungle Book reimagined, Adelaide Festival Centre, until 16 March