After professionally dancing for 12 years around the Washington, D.C. area, Chitra Kalyandurg has been chosen to choreograph Tracey Power’s adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” Adventure Theatre Musical Theater Center’s latest production, running April 4 to May 25.
However, the decorated performer has never read Rudyard Kipling’s fable and can’t recall watching the Disney film.
“I know I must have seen it when I was a child,” Kalyandurg said. “After so much time working with the script and realizing South Asia’s influence, I’m excited to read Kipling’s story after the show’s run.”
Inspired by the vibrant imagery of the jungle, Kalyandurg has integrated classical Indian dance elements into the performance. With her training in Kuchipudi, a traditional Indian dance involving vocal-heavy Carnatic music made with the violin, tambura and a South Indian percussion instrument known as the mridangam, Kalyandurg has developed gestures and motions for the actors to communicate their animal roles.
“I enjoy imposing my viewpoint of movement onto other people and watching that come to life,” Kalyandurg said.
Andrew Ferlo, who plays the nefarious Bengal tiger Shere Khan, is grateful that Kalyandurg’s techniques mask his admittedly poor rhythm.
“I’m a really bad dancer,” Ferlo said. “So working on the movement has really helped me understand the animalistic nature of the character. I’m able to dial back the human instincts in times of danger like when Khan sees fire, I know how to physically express his terror.”
Intrigued by Kipling’s theme of globalization, Ferlo views his antagonist role in a different light than the Disney version intended.
“When you’re six-foot-three, there’s very few roles in children’s theater where you can play someone besides the villain,” Ferlo said. “But I feel Khan is justified for trying to prevent the human encroachment of the jungle, so it’s fun to make someone perceived as evil become a fleshed-out character.”
Director Shirley Serotsky selected a multiethnic cast and crew of Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, African American and Indian talent.
As the associate artistic director at Theater J, a program of the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center, Serotsky said she’s lucky to not be limited to a culturally specific genre.
“I appreciate the opportunity to learn about another culture while admitting I’ll never fully understand it,” Serotsky said. “That’s why I enjoy working with actors with firsthand experience in that culture. For example, I think monkeys are cute and I think most Americans feel the same way, but one of the actors with South Asia roots said monkeys are treated like pigeons there — people shoo them away.”
Playing the orphaned man-cub Mowgli, Rafael Sebastian can relate to the protagonist’s pursuit of communal acceptance because of his own experiences navigating the local theater scene.
“When I moved from southern Virginia to the Northern Virginia/D.C. area, I was like Mowgli trying to find out exactly where I belong,” Sebastian said. “Everything is faster paced around here, so I’m constantly learning, constantly absorbing my surroundings.”
With a basic knowledge of Indian dance style from studying at George Mason University, Sebastian hopes to build upon his foundation to illustrate the play’s universal themes in a visually stimulating fashion.
“My goal as an actor is to share stories that celebrate common humanity, and maybe in this case, not quite human,” Sebastian said. “Mowgli learns that families have many different looks, whether it is the traditional picture or a boy and a pack of wolves.”
Serotsky looks forward to presenting the “timeless simplicity” of “The Jungle Book” to a new generation.
“I hope kids can see themselves through Mowgli,” Serotsky said. “The modern family we talk about now wasn’t relevant in 1894, but Kipling wanted readers to know that even if parents didn’t look like their kids, they are still family as long as they love and nurture.”
As for Kalyandurg, she’s honored to be preserving a piece of her heritage and contributing to its future in America.
“I’m excited that Indian dance has been showcased a lot more in recent years,” Kalyandurg said. “In this production, we’re integrating it in ways you wouldn’t traditionally experience. This play will introduce Indian dance to kids, who are scientifically more receptive to and willing to learn new languages and ideas.”