Pennsylvania Ballet II & Curtis Institute premiere the Jungle Book Ballet

Colby Damon creates Jungle Book ballet

by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

After a serious knee injury, long recovery and return to the dance stage, Colby Damon took his final bows as a full time BalletX dancer, but is just as busy as a dance teacher and increasingly, a choreographer. Over the past year he has been taken on his most ambitious dance project yet, adapting The Jungle Book for the ballet stage, setting it on Pennsylvania Ballet II to have its premiere at the Curtis Institute of Music Feb. 20 – 21, with musicians from Curtis performing the original score by composer John B Hedges.

PBII artistic director Francis Veyette has been increasing the troupe’s visibility with a slate separate community outreach programs and collaborations with arts organizations. In an interview at PABallet studios early this month, Damon said Veyette approached him last year about possibly doing a new children’s ballet, something like “Peter and the Wolf” but I suggested Jungle Book, which I had always thought would make a good children’s ballet.”

In addition to the stories having built in action for the dance stage, “it’s a story is about a young boy named Mowgli learning about life and morality from the natural world and creatures around him,” Damon noted.

Jungle Book’s cast of jungle creatures gives Damon ample ways to explore adventurous movement and the entire PBII roster will be dancing in the ballet. Meanwhile, he’s updated the original 19th century Jungle Book stories by Rudyard Kipling set in India that have what Damon cites as “colonial” undertones. And “Thoughts of man as being superior to nature, so I could dive into themes of our place within the natural world.” It’s a story you can reflect on in significant ways,” Damon said.

“A big part of the story to be is Mowglii figuring out that he doesn’t really belong in the jungle…that as a human he operates differently from the untouched balance of nature. A core message of the story is that humanity can be destructive.”

Aside from ecological themes, Damon said he “wanted to do a ballet for really young kids who will be just dazzled and older kids who will follow the story and those who will love the music and dance. And I didn’t want it to be hard for young audiences to have to imagine things. The theme points to a greater understanding of nature. I want it to be an immersive visual experience, with lush sets and costumes.”

JungleBook costumes by Rebecca Kanach

To achieve that, he wanted a portable production that could travel easily in theaters, community centers and schools. “To achieve that lushness he worked with Rebecca Kanash on sleek, colorful and in the case of a ravenous anaconda, elaborate costumes. The ‘portable’ was created by Sebastienne Mundheim, whose production designs for the Arden Theater’s 2014 Beauty and the Beast were widely praised.

Also making the story accessible for all ages, the ballet will have narration by spoken word performer Anthony Martinez Briggs who collaborated with Damon on the Jungle Book text.

To develop the choreography, Damon worked closely with composer Hedges, section by section for the ballet score over a period of months.  “He would play an idea on the piano and we would discuss how the dance action would flow. The orchestration is for cello, violin, bass flute, oboe, French horn and two percussionists, “with some of the musicians playing other things. There is a harmonium, finger cymbals, and voices, the music is based on Indian music and Balinese motifs that are more fantastical, “Damon said.

“Course, some ideas don’t work, so you just toss them. But I try not to over think it- I think stifles creativity and natural impulses I have, “ the choreographer mused as he was putting the final touches on a fight scene between Mowgli, danced by Michael Matthews and Emily Davis who plays the Bengal Tyger. Rehearsing the fight duet as well is Randolph Fernandez the newest member of PBII.

Colby & Rowan creating Inkki

Working with very young dancers is particularly rewarding for Damon and he instantly connected with Rowan Duffy, age 8, as he gave him his frantic moves as Inkii, the wild porcupine character. Duffy attends the School of Pennsylvania Ballet and was a scene stealer as the bratty brother Fritz in this year’s PB Nutcracker and here is also having no trouble dancing the chasses , leaps and porcupine moves that Damon is giving him.

The choreographer recalled what it meant to him being in ballets when he was a child and stresses how important it is to have “children onstage in a children’s ballet and to introduce young audiences to dance, stagecraft and classical music. Little kids sitting the audience seeing little kids perform in a professional production really connects them to the stage. When we do Jungle Book in larger venues, we’ll add more. I did so many ballets when I was a kid and those are just the greatest experiences.”

This weekend’s performances at the Curtis Institute are sold out but there will be a free live-stream of the performance from Curtis on Sunday at 2pm at http://curtisperforms.curtis.edu/ and in April there are scheduled performances of Jungle Book at The Upper Darby Performing Arts Center and Millersville University.

For updates check www.paballet.org

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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