Take a walk on the wild side

Alexander Academy uses variety of dance styles in original telling of Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’

Sara Salaparuta (clockwise from left), Ki’tsai Zangpo, Ronan Mangat and Hina Claerbout perform in Alexander Academy Performing Company’s presentation of “The Jungle Book” ballet, directed by Amelia Couture. Performances are at 6 p.m. Friday, May 31, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday, June 1 and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 2 at the ‘A‘ali‘ikuhonua Creative Arts Center on the Seabury Hall campus in Makawao. Tickets are $18 for adults and $10 for children younger than 12. VIP seats are $28 for adults and $17 for children and are available by calling 878-8970 or going online to www.thejunglebook.brownpapertickets.com. For more information, visit www.alexanderacademy.info. Chelsea Fine photo

“I had so much fun on ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ in building a ballet from the ground up,” said Amelia Couture, artistic director of Alexander Academy Performing Company’s original ballet, “The Jungle Book,” which opens next weekend at Seabury Hall’s ‘A’ali’ikuhonua Creative Arts Center in Makawao.

“The school has expanded to include jazz, tap, hip-hop and break dancing, and we wanted to create an original ballet that could fit non-ballet dance into the story,” she explained further.

Those who saw 2016’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and 2018’s “The Little Mermaid” are familiar with Alexander’s imaginative and modern interpretations of classic tales.

I asked Couture what audiences can expect from “The Jungle Book.”

“This is our most contemporary and least classical ballet to date,” she acknowledged. “As a ballet purist, I wouldn’t do ‘Swan Lake’ with hip-hop, but this story lends itself to be told through a variety of dances. The humans’ movement is the most strictly classical, but the animals are highly contemporary — the wolves, Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan.

Christine Gambito, the Filipino-American comedian better known as HappySlip, makes her Maui debut at Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku on Sunday. Photo courtesy the artist

“Animals are grounded — their movements are low, which is very different from ballet. With the monkeys we have incorporated jazz, break dance and hip-hop. It’s very athletic.”

Couture, who also teaches ballet and contemporary dance, started dancing at Alexander Academy as a child, and later incorporated modern dance with the Seabury Hall Dance Ensemble before studying with Ballet Hawaii, American Ballet Theater, Ballet West and the University of Utah Ballet. I asked her what makes the upcountry-based Alexander Academy unique.

“I could teach dance anywhere, but the reason I want to keep teaching at Alexander is because of the camaraderie,” she admitted. “Alexander Academy is certainly about high-quality dance education, but it’s really about creating kind, community-oriented, responsible young people.”

“Our students’ beautiful dancing, our faculty’s transformative choreography and our families’ intricate behind-the-scenes work make these productions memorable events for our dancers and our audiences every year,” says Danelle Watson, studio owner and executive director of the academy and performing company.

“Danelle has picked this incredible staff of people willing to do whatever might be needed for the school and the performances,” added Couture. “This is done consciously with an emphasis on community and teamwork. We love working with each other, and the kids see that. It’s just a wonderful place to be for the kids and the staff alike.”

The company encourages audiences to attend multiple shows throughout the weekend in order to witness the full scope of dancers, as well as all the theatrical elements intended to make “The Jungle Book” an enjoyable experience for all ages.

The original 1893 novel, by Rudyard Kipling, is actually a collection of seven short stories, and the settings are drawn from Kipling’s own experiences during his travels through India, Afghanistan and the Bering Sea.

All seven stories feature talking animals — the most popular centered on the man-cub Mowgli (Ronan Mangat and Calilynn Saltzer). Mowgli, a baby saved from certain death by Bagheera the panther (Hina Claerbout and Amelie Wertheim), is adopted by the Seeonee Wolf Pack and raised as their own.

Though accepted as a wolf by the other animals, and taught the languages and laws of the jungle by Bagheera and Baloo the bear (Ki’tsai Zangpo), Mowgli realizes he must rejoin the humans as he grows into a young man. Though he does not identify as a human, which represents greed and destruction to him, Mowgli must come to terms with the fact that he is, despite his prejudices, human.

Later, when a change of power leads to Mowgli being banished from the wolf pack, he becomes the defenseless prey of his sworn enemy, Shere Khan the tiger (Yasmine Lindskog and Sara Salaparuta). Additional Kipling stories find him tempted by Kaa the python (Natalie Harris and Lilah Li), and kidnapped by the Bandar-log, the large jungle tribe of a variety of primates, until he is rescued on both occasions by Bagheera and Baloo.

Adapting “The Jungle Book” was no small task, and Couture’s version highlights the relationships, alliances and conflicts that arise as Mowgli’s human traits become more evident and less suited for the jungle life. Couture shared the collaborative process of building an original ballet “from the ground up.”

“I start by picking a soundtrack that works well for inspiration,” she disclosed. “With ‘Mermaid,’ I landed on ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,’ and with this ballet I chose the soundtrack to the recent Disney live action ‘Jungle Book.’ Then we add onto that music to create our own collage of recorded music. We’ve added music that has significant Eastern influences with Indian instrumentation.”

As is her signature style, Couture’s staging also stretches the performance space well beyond the physical stage.

I inquired about the time and dedication necessary in creating a new ballet.

“We held auditions the second week of January, and started rehearsing on Feb. 1,” revealed Couture. “Each teacher rehearses at least 15 hours a week with the kids. Absalon Figueroa is constructing a seven-minute piece with 30 ballerinas, and they alone have been in rehearsals every Saturday for three months.

“But then, between the administrators, teachers and designers, there’s another 30 hours a week tackling all the other aspects of the ballet from the set, to costumes and everything else.”

The look of “The Jungle Book” will be original as well, with imaginative costuming, props and stage design.

“Chelsea Fine is doing some non-specific costumes,” continued Couture. “They are very anthropomorphic. No one is in a big bear suit. We were also influenced by the look of ‘The Lion King.’ Denise Green has built these wonderful masks and Jenny Olivari has designed painted unitards.

“Our youth ballets are more than just a recital for the kids. We believe in storytelling and drama. Our productions have wonderful production values and are not to be missed.”

This week

Filipino-American internet personality, actress and comedian Christine Gambito brings her “HappySlip LIVE!” comedy show to the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.

Best known for her family-friendly comedy sketches in which she impersonates members of her Filipino family as the character HappySlip, Gambito was the first YouTube personality to create a one-woman show showcasing her unique comedic style of celebrating and poking fun at Filipino-American culture.

• Performance is at 7 p.m. Sunday, at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. General admission tickets are $20 (plus applicable fees). This all-ages comedy show is recommended for children aged 8 and older. To purchase tickets for any Iao Theater event, call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com.

Upcoming

Captured live from London’s West End in 2013, “The Audience” returns with an encore screening of Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in this Tony Award-winning production. Mirren’s subsequent Academy Award-winning performance in “The Queen,” was based on “The Audience.”

For 60 years, Queen Elizabeth II has met with each of her 12 prime ministers in a private weekly meeting known as the audience. No one knows what they discuss, not even their spouses.

From the old warrior Winston Churchill, to Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron, the Queen advises her prime ministers on all matters both public and personal. Through these audiences, we see glimpses of the woman behind the crown and witness the moments that have shaped her monarchy.

• Screening is at 7 p.m. Monday, June 3 at the Maui Mall Megaplex 12 in Kahului. Tickets are $18.75 (plus applicable fees) and are available online at www.fathomevents.com.

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