Dancers become birds and snakes in ‘Jungle Book’

Camille McPherson and Adam Bloodgood in San Diego Ballet's production of "The Jungle Book."
(Photo by Patty Martinez)

San Diego Ballet’s version tells Kipling’s story with dancers and puppets

The Big Red Bird knows how to make an entrance.

Kaa, the snake, can slither aside. And Bagheera, the panther, should just slink off.

When the giant puppet takes the stage, with its pointy beak, swan-like neck and spindly, blue feet, it towers over the dancers in San Diego Ballet’s production of “The Jungle Book.”

A creation by Animal Cracker Conspiracy, the Big Red Bird fixes its beady, black eyes on the audience and draws young and old into Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale, brought back to the Lyceum Theatre this weekend after its successful run last year.

“The bird made me do a double-take,” admits San Diego Ballet executive director Matt Carney.

“It looks at the audience and at the kids and it’s so … birdlike. The puppets really add to the theatrical quality of ‘The Jungle Book.’”

The family-friendly production by San Diego Ballet’s artistic director Javier Velasco is a wild mix of hip-hopping orangutans, ballet dancers in jungle print costumes and larger-than-life puppets, dancing to a swinging rendition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”

How larger-than-life?

The elephant is on stilts and the Big Red Bird is made of foam and attached to a back pack.

Both puppet roles are played by Taz Harrison, an Animal Cracker Conspiracy team member.

“I introduced Taz to the world of giant puppetry and he really took to it,” says Iain Gunn, who co-founded Animal Cracker Conspiracy with his partner, Bridget Rountree.

“He’s physical — really strong, and he enjoys performing. He’s done a lot of our larger, heavier characters that some performers like the look of-but when they put on the costume, they are, like, ‘Get me out of here.’”

Gunn says he strives to make puppets that are roughly the size of a Volkswagen bug. The Big Red Bird, he says, is about half that size. But it’s not just size that counts. The puppeteer must really play the role, despite balancing on stilts or being enclosed in a costume that feels like it weighs as much as, well, a Volkswagen. That’s the magical quality that captures attention.

“And that’s why we love it,” Gunn says.

“It’s completely alive, yet created. It’s a quality of puppetry that is attractive and engaging.”

San Diego Ballet is best known for its Latin-themed ballets, working with notable jazz artists who compose and perform with the company dancers.

But another mission is to produce a family-friendly production once a year. San Diego Ballet partners with the Boys & Girls Club, provides accessible tickets to under-served communities and offers free educational programs.

The company also collaborates with other arts organizations, such as Animal Cracker Conspiracy, to add an element of surprise and engage multiple generations.

At last year’s show, the youngsters’ enjoyment triggered the same response in the adults.

“Some companies will advertise that kids can come, but we do a show that is specifically kid-friendly,” says Carney.

“It’s really for all ages. Kids aren’t afraid to gasp. They aren’t afraid to laugh like adult audiences. So you get a more authentic reaction when there are a lot of children at the show.”

San Diego Ballet presents “The Jungle Book”

When: 2:30 and 7 p.m. Nov. 9; 2:30 p.m. Nov.10

Where: Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown

Tickets: $30-$65 (senior, military and student discounts available)

Phone: (619) 544-1000


Manna is a freelance writer.