Dancing through the jungle

You don’t necessarily have to be familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book to appreciate its relatively obscure sequel The Second Jungle Book.

And you definitely don’t have to be familiar with The Second Jungle Book to appreciate the lovingly spirited production of this unearthed fable presented by Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre and the New Studio of Dance.

“It stands as a story in its own right, and the story is actually a lot better than the first Jungle Book,” declares Giles Collard, the two companies’ co-director. “The first Jungle Book is geared mostly for kids, but the second one is for both kids and adults. The subjects that are brought up in it about human behaviors — human greed and manipulations — are universal.”

Years ago, Collard’s mother gave him a rare first-edition of The Second Jungle Book.

“I didn’t even know there was a second [one]; I thought it was just The Jungle Book,” he admits, thumbing the worn but intact volume carefully. It falls open to a telling passage: “The things that [Mowgli] saw and heard when he was wandering from one people to another, with or without his companions, would make many stories, each as long as this one.”

The Jungle Book’s sequel has a richness of purpose that eclipses its more plot-driven predecessor, Collard believes. “Finally, [these days] we’ve begun to recognize the value and balance of nature,” he says. ” And all of that [was] in The Second Jungle Book, way back in 1895. Everyone has their place; the animals respect each other; there’s even respect for the Kites [Kipling’s vultures], the [idea of a] continuation of a natural cycle. But what’s wonderful is that these themes are part of the story, not a lecture — not just ‘Be good, don’t destroy things. ‘”

In The Second Jungle Book, nuggets of resonance issue from unlikely sources, Collard notes, citing a line spoken by Mowgli’s aging bear friend, Baloo: “When the thieves [are chasing] Mowgli, Baloo says, ‘Human beings in a pack act sometimes very unreasonably.'”

Mowgli, the boy-cub raised by wolves, is by now a young man. After a chaotic stint in the village, he returns to the jungle he loves and is happily reunited with his animal guides, among them Kaa (a rock python) and Bagheera (a black panther). Complications arise when Mowgli, the newly knighted master of the jungle, is pursued by a pack of villains coveting the wealth of his human parents. Mowgli has never considered himself part of the “man-pack,” Collard points out (“He thinks he’s a hairless wolf”) and, angered by the thieves’ greed, he compels the elephant, Hathi, to destroy the village houses.

But insight often tempers drama in this textured tale, the choreographer points out.

“People are older; there’s a lot of respect for elders [and] the idea that you must consult with people who are older and wiser in making decisions — and that, if you make a rash one, you’re stuck with it,” Collard explains. “We see that a lot in The Second Jungle Book. Even the cobras, who have a bad reputation in the first Jungle Book for being unfriendly folk, have a new [dimension]. There’s a scene [featuring] an old, white cobra. And Mowgli makes fun of him, then eventually finds out that the white cobra was wise all along, wiser than Mowgli was — and Mowgli acknowledges that.”

An alliance with Asheville’s Red Herring Puppets allowed ACDT to vividly realize the cobras and elephant in this theatrical dance production. Collard, who’s also a puppeteer, shows off the as-yet-lifeless Hathi — a huge, startling presence looming half-finished in the studio’s back room.

Eerie Indian music, languidly stealthy dance moves, and Kipling’s eccentric, jangling poetry will all conspire to set the jungle mood.

“All the characters speak, and we don’t even realize it’s poetry,” says Collard, who plays Kaa the Python. “I mean, even the monkeys are jumping around on each other and doing poetry.”

Leacey Nyberg, the local ninth grader who portrays Mowgli, is also a fan of Kipling’s verse. “I love doing the poetry,” she says simply. Nyberg has been playing Mowgli for quite some time now (ACDT’s original production of The Jungle Book just completed another leg of its highly successful Southeastern tour) and feels she’s grown with her character during this second installment of his riotous adventures:

“I know him even more now,” she reveals.

“By this time, Leacey is Mowgli,” Collard confirms. In the climax of The Second Jungle Book, the boy-cub grows restless and confused witnessing the springtime frolicking of his jungle companions, and faces the realization that he may, after all, belong more with his village family than among his wild brethren.

Kipling was determined that The Second Jungle Book would be the last of the Mowgli stories, even stating so — rather abruptly — at the close of the book. As for Nyberg, she’s adored the opportunity to explore a character so deeply. And while she’s not positive that dance will be the sole focus of her post-high school plans, she vows that it will always be a part of her life.

“Even if it’s not the main thing that I do, I could never let it go.”

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