Animal Activists: State Street Ballet Updates Jungle Book

By Steven Libowitz   |   March 14, 2019

Something about the original score by Czech composer and conductor Milan Svoboda for a theatrical production of The Jungle Book drew State Street Ballet Artistic Director Rodney Gustafson’s attention when it arrived unsolicited more than a decade ago with a proposal to use it to create an original full-length work based on the beloved Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories. The tale of the adventures of a young boy named Mowgli who was raised by a pack of wolves in the jungle had been adapted many times over for stage, television and, most famously, in the classic 1967 Disney animated film. But ballet was something new.

“I get a lot of things sent by composers and designers. But for some reason this felt like an idea I was interested in,” Gustafson said. “I read the story as a kid, of course. I liked that it wasn’t a typical ballet. I looked at many different stories, from Hans Christian Andersen to Huckleberry Finn, wanting a protagonist who wasn’t a woman. But mostly the music was so melodic and symbolic, and very much like a soundtrack, and almost all very upbeat that it makes you feel good. It had a lot of flow to it, which is conducive to choreography.”

So Gustafson and Gary McKenzie set about creative choreography for The Jungle Book, uses movements to convey the relationships, struggles and alliances between Mowgli and the animal characters in the mystical land of wolves, snakes, monkeys, and panthers, in the coming-of-age story that has captivated audiences for more than a century. When it premiered in 2009, State Street’s The Jungle Book was hailed as “a joy to behold” and “visually stunning,” then toured throughout California and the Southwest before returning for a reprise performance at the Granada in 2011.

Eight years later, the ballet company is reviving the work for a single show at the Granada on Sunday afternoon, March 24. While 2019’s The Jungle Book is not a different animal altogether, there has been a significant overhaul. Spurred by longtime State Street guest choreography William Soleau coming on as co-artistic director when McKenzie retired two years ago, “We decided to take another look,” Gustafson said. “There are a lot of new things; it’s been refreshed.”

Soleau touched up a number of sections, Gustafson said, noting his co-choreographer’s background in theater as well as dance. “We went all through the piece, which was a little bit disjointed because in the segments Gary and I did before, the storyline didn’t feel like it flowed as well as it could. Bill is masterful at making it very even throughout.”

More dramatic is additional new choreography by Kassandra Taylor Newberry, which replaced much of McKenzie’s fight scenes and monkey interplay, Gustafson said. “She’s got a style that’s hip-hop-py and very unique, different than anything you’d see. I’m from classical ballet, Bill is contemporary, but she’s just a genius young choreographer who is so out of the box. The things she did were just great.”

Meanwhile, the elaborate and colorful animal costumes by A. Christina Giannini that so captivated kids and adults back in 2009 have been updated for this production with additional new designs by Nicole Thompson. Indeed, the cornucopia of critters is part of what attracted Gustafson to the story in the first place.

“Almost everyone in the ballet except for just a few characters are animals, and that’s intriguing because we could create movements appropriate for a tiger or a panther or monkeys. We have a lot of sophisticated stuff in our repertoire, dramas with hardcore music. But sometimes, I love to do a production that’s entertaining to a general audience. The Jungle Book is a lot of fun.”

As befitting a tale with universal appeal, State Street’s new production will have a lot of international flavor. Mowgli is portrayed by Francois Llorente, a young Cuban gold medal-winning dancer while Japanese dancer Saori Yamashita plays his love interest, and Deise Mendonca, of Brazil, plays Kaa the snake, and American Anna Carnes is the leopard.

“I think that’s a really nice feature of our company,” Gustafson said.

As part of its community outreach mission, State Street Ballet will present a Jungle Book educational experience for students in grades 2-5 on March 22, where 1,300 Santa Barbara School District students will see excerpts from the ballet and participate in interactive movement and a Q&A session. Meanwhile, families can get an early taste of The Jungle Book at the Santa Barbara Zoo when several characters show up in costume in advance of the regular Dinosaur Shows at 12 noon and 3:30 pm on Saturday, March 16.

Tickets to State Street’s 2 pm, March 24, performance of The Jungle Book cost $36-$104 ($24 kids 12 and under) and are available at, or (805) 899-2222.


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