Kipling Classic Gets Modern Update

Lustig’s Oakland Ballet debuts Jangala with a West Coast premiere.


The Jungle Book gets an urban twist from the Oakland Ballet with Jangala.

Stephen Texeira

It’s quite likely that Graham Lustig, choreographer and artistic director of the Oakland Ballet Company, first encountered Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as a child in England. The Victorian writer’s prose has gone out of style, but his characters—the abandoned boy Mowgli, Bagheera the black panther, Shere Kan the mean tiger, Kaa the enormous python, and Akela the noble leader of the wolf pack—have survived in Disney films. The story still talks eloquently about growing up brave and strong—with the help of some friends.

Four years ago, Lustig went back to those early childhood memories by creating the family-friendly Jangala in which he supplanted Kipling’s forest with an edgier world. Young Mowgli learns to survive in the “jungle” of a modern Indian City. It includes, the company says, “disco nightclubs, construction sites, and junkyards inhabited by feral dogs.”

Jangala will receive its West Coast premiere on March 10 in Oakland and March 13 in Castro Valley.

An experienced dance maker, Lustig embraced modern life by breaking down passed-down concepts of dance and music in favor of an easy mix of the old and the new. He, for instance, expanded his ballet practice to include popular contemporary movement, even as he borrowed from another classical form, Bharatanatyam, South India’s oldest traditional dance. His musical score embraces Bhangra, the high-energy pop style started by Punjabi youth in London in the 1980s. It comfortably exists side by side with Indian folk tunes and ancient ragas.

As for the cast, Ailey Dance alumnus Sanchit Babbar, born and raised in New Delhi, will dance Mowgli, while Bharatanatyam dancer Nadhi Thekkek will join Lustig’s own ballet dancers as Mowgli’s mother.

Also on the program will be the premiere of yet unnamed dance narrative by Thekkek’s 5-year-old Nava Dance Theatre that also looks at tradition through new lenses.

Nava’s Bharatanaytam dancers honor the past but speak with a contemporary accent.

Oakland Ballet Company, Jangala, March 10, 2:30 p.m., Skyline High School Performing Arts Center, Oakland; March 13, 7 p.m., Castro Valley High School Performing Arts Center, Castro Valley. $15-$50, discounts for seniors, college students, and children under 18;, 510-893-3132,


This story appeared in the March edition of our sister publication, The Monthly. 

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