Composer, conductor, band leader, jazz pianist
(hudební skladatel, dirigent, jazzový pianista)


Jungle Book Ballet, La Granada Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
State Street Ballet Company
world premiere October 10th, 2009
video sample


State Street Ballet’s ‘Jungle Book’ Wildly Delightful

From the characters to the sets to the music, the company's opening production was a crowd-pleaser

By Margo Kline, Noozhawk Contributor | Published on 10.12.2009

State Street Ballet opened its new season over the weekend with a full-length dance version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book that was a joy to behold.
A collaboration by company artistic director Rodney Gustafson and ballet master Gary McKenzie, The Jungle Book filled the stage of The Granada with a superb cast. The dancers gave life to Mowgli the Jungle Boy and Kipling’s beloved animal characters. The original music, by Czech composer Milan Svoboda, was fresh, romantic and funny.
At Sunday’s matinee, many of the seats were filled with small children in dress-up clothes, who sat mesmerized throughout the ballet’s nearly two hours. The noise came at the end, with the kids and their grownup companions roaring their appreciation.
Mowgli as a young man was danced by Jose Edwin Gonzalez, a transplant from Colombia who brings superior acting skills as well as dancing mastery to the State Street company. Portraying Mowgli as a young boy was Joel Sterken. The young Mowgli’s wolf cub friends were danced by Leeza Domrachev and Afton Gustafson; the full-grown versions were danced by David Michael Eck and Steven Jasso.
Shere Kahn, the tiger stalking Mowgli, was performed brilliantly by Bayaraa Badamsambuu. He is one of the company’s two Russian imports who trained with Perm Ballet and bring genuine brilliance to their performances. The other Perm alumnus is Sergei Domrachev, who danced the Monkey King with his customary bravura style. These two are worth the price of admission alone.
Mowgli’s jungle friends Ikki the Porcupine and Riki-Tiki-Tavi the Mongoose were danced by Katie McDermott and Cecily Stewart, respectively and charmingly. His Wolf Mother was Allyson Mattoon, and Akela the wolf pack leader was John Christopher Piel. Appearing as Mowgli’s wonderful animal friends were Leila Drake as Bagheera the black panther, Victoria Luchkina as the sinuous python Kaa and Gary McKenzie as Baloo, the large but not scary Sloth Bear.
Kipling being a proper Victorian man couldn’t just leave Mowgli to run wild in the jungle, so he introduced the human girl Messua, danced by lovely Jennifer Rowe. An obnoxious/hilarious “safari couple” were portrayed by Marina Fliagina and Gary McKenzie, complete with khaki clothes and rifles to aim at the animals.
The score was recorded in Prague by the Symphonic Orchestra of the National Theatre and the composer’s Milan Svoboda Jazz Orchestra, with vocalist Yvetta Blanarovicova. Jean-Francois Revon created the scenic design, and the sets were painted by Serena Shanary and Ismael Angaon, with production and lighting design by Mark Somerfield.
The costume designer, A. Christina Giannini, has dressed Broadway, off-Broadway, opera and dance performances with the likes of the Alvin Ailey and Robert Joffrey companies, Buglisi Dance Theater in New York and the Ballet National of Caracas, Venezuela. Assisting her with Jungle Book’s costumes and air-brushed makeup was Anaya Cullen. Brittany McClelland created the wonderful character makeup for the animals.
State Street Ballet enjoys a successful touring season each year, and has been warmly welcomed as far away as Mainland China. The Jungle Book is sure to be a crowd-pleaser wherever it goes.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.


The Jungle Book at the Granada

State Street Ballet Brings Wild Animals to the Stage

Tuesday, October 13, 2009
By Ben Preston

The Granada was packed with spectators last Sunday afternoon for State Street Ballet's matinee production of The Jungle Book. Many in the audience were children, some of whom were clad in animal print clothing celebrating their favorite characters. A few may have been aspiring ballerinas, but you didn't have to be one to enjoy the fun of this show. Although it contained some somber moments, the production’s overarching mood was playful, and the dancers—dressed in A. Christina Giannini’s stunning, elaborate animal costumes—made a superb show of skill throughout the performance. The backdrop remained fixed, but set designers used colored lights to create changes in mood from the silky, sophisticated movements of Leila Drake as Bagheera the panther to the raucous buffoonery of the monkeys, led by Sergei Domrachev as their king.

Delighted squeals from the audience confirmed their appreciation of Rodney Gustafson and Gary McKenzie's choreography, particularly during solo performances by Jose Edwin Gonzalez, who played Mowgli. He never missed a beat, performing seemingly endless jumps, spins, and twirls across the stage, and pulled off a couple of marvelous scenes with the fair maiden Messua, played by Jennifer Rowe. Some of the synchronized scenes involving many characters were a bit confusing, but the village girls who danced with Rowe brought harmony to their ensemble work. Victoria Luchkina, in the role of Kaa the snake, delivered a truly standout performance, seamlessly transitioning from one impossible pose to the next in a slinky costume that did much to accentuate the fluidity of her character.

Combined with Milan Svoboda's fun, original score, the entire company's engaging acting and dancing skills whisked viewers into the fanciful drama of Rudyard Kipling's classic tale. Relationships and alliances unfolded, and in the end, all of the characters converged to help Mowgli defeat the evil tiger Shere Khan—played by Bayaraa Badamsambuu—leaving the young audience with a notion that it's best to join forces when facing a big challenge. With only one month to prepare for this show, State Street Ballet’s dancers certainly modeled such a group effort, with dazzling results

Jungle Book review
Oct 11, 2009, 11:25 AM

by Lizzo
Edhat Santa Barbara

What can I say? Mowgli, performed by Jose Edwin Gonzalez, has some moves! The whole cast of tonight's performance at The Granada did.
It's been a long time since I've seen a ballet, and I didn't know what to expect. I knew that The Jungle Book would not likely be a traditional ballet of precision moves and pink tutus. In fact, there was not a single tutu in the entire performance.
There were moves you would expect -- leaps, pirouettes, lifts and shuffling on tip toes -- and moves you might not have expected -- including a monkey slapping his own rear. Once I quit trying to understand why wolves would be frolicking about the jungle dancing and decided to simply enjoy the show, it was great.
The costumes were fun, the performers were engaging and athletic and the music set the tone.
I recommend: Read the synopsis in the program to help you engage with the story line.


State Street Ballet's "The Jungle Book"

A Novel Idea for a Ballet

Jasmine Rios
March 2010

Quaint Santa Barbara is home of the prestigious State Street Ballet (SSB)—a company whose fifteen year longevity has augmented a devout local audience and international acclaim. Under the artistic direction of Rodney Gustafson, founder of SSB, the company has consistently flourished. Over the last year, Gustafson has fully immersed himself in the creation of a new full-length ballet that has audience appeal written all over it. The production: "The Jungle Book" based on Rudyard Kipling's classic tale.

Jose E. Gonzalez and Victoria Luchkina, "The Jungle Book," State Street Ballet Photo by David Bazemore

Gustafson became inspired during a visit to New York. "I saw the Disney version of 'Tarzan' on Broadway a few years ago and was fascinated by the choreography for the monkeys. Shortly after, I was approached by Milan [conductor/composer Milan Svoboda] who composed a full-length 'Jungle Book' for the ballet company of the National Theatre in Prague. Mr. Svoboda had heard about State Street Ballet's history of creating original works and asked if I would be interested in producing my own version to his music."

The choreography was a collaborative effort between Gustafson and SSB ballet master Gary McKenzie. They incorporated several dance styles that were just as varied as the music. The compilation consists of classical music performed by the Symphonic Orchestra of the National Theatre in Prague, jazz music performed by Svoboda's Jazz Orchestra, and world fusion music by various guest artists including Czech vocalist Yvetta Blanarovičova. The world premiere of Gustafson's "The Jungle Book" was held over the weekend of October 10 and 11, 2009 at Santa Barbara's historic Granada Theatre. The Sunday matinee on the 11th was filled with scores of families with children from toddlers to teens.

Good sound quality emitted from the theater sound system for the recorded taping of Svoboda's ballet score. The production began with the mysterious classical piece, "Rise of the Jungle." The music had an epic film theme quality, a typical characteristic of Svoboda's work given his years of experience composing Czech film scores. The audience was instantly drawn to the animal characters dancing on pointe slowly down the theatre aisles. Then their attention gravitated toward the stage where the devious Bengal tiger character Shere Khan, performed by Bayaraa Badamsambuu, made an impressive grand entrance. This pivotal first scene where Shere Khan discovers Mowgli, the young human child, and whisks him off into the jungle, was captivating and masterfully performed by Badamsambuu. Coming to Mowgli's rescue were his guardians in the jungle, Raksha the She-wolf, performed by Alyson Mattoon, and John Christopher Piel as Akela the pack leader. Mattoon brought a gentle quality to her character with her feather light movements and during the duo's pas de deux, their overt display of affection was genuinely moving.

Victoria Luchkina as Kaa and Sergei Domrachev as the Monkey King in State Street Ballet's "The Jungle Book" Photo by David Bazemore

As the python character Kaa, Victoria Luchkina performed a magnificent solo to African rhythms and riveting vocals by Blanarovičova. Luchkina's incredible contortionist ability mesmerized the audience. Even during scenes thereafter, each time Luchkina appeared on stage, all eyes were on her. Leila Drake was also striking and sleek in her dark velvet unitard in the role of Bagheera the panther. Interestingly, with every dancer on pointe, one couldn't help but notice the absence of the dainty pitter patter of pointe shoes on marley. Not many audiences have the privilege of witnessing the miracle of noiseless pointe shoes. It was pure pleasure.

The honey-loving sloth bear Baloo, played by ballet master Gary McKenzie, was a particularly small role, but lighthearted and sweet nonetheless. The characters Ikki the porcupine, performed by Katie McDermott and Rikki-Tikki-Tave the mongoose, performed by Cecily Stewart were a cutesy pair that seemed to appeal to the children in the audience, but their significance to the ballet seemed a little redundant.

Jose E. Gonzalez as Mowgli and Jennifer Rowe as Messua in State Street Ballet's "The Jungle Book" Photo by David Bazemore

Dancing bare-chested in red pantaloons was Jose Edwin Gonzalez, fittingly cast as the grown-up Mowgli with his long lean limbs and bronze complexion. A slapstick style comedy bit between Gonzalez and dancers David Michael Eck and Steven Jasso, portraying two grown wolves, was playful and fun. During this scene, Gonzalez demonstrated soaring athleticism with his high jazz style barrel turns.

Mowgli's first human encounter was with the character Messua, played by Jennifer Rowe, a young maiden whom Mowgli falls in love with. Though the character Messua plays Mowgli's mother in the original story, the character change seemed appropriate for the ballet. Playing the Safari Couple were ballet mistress Marina Fliagina and ballet master Gary McKenzie. The seasoned artists' brought about a delightful charm during their humorous dance and mime sequence to the cartoonish song "Tourists' Arrival."

From a distance, Mowgli observes the Safari Couple light a fire. The Bandar-log (monkey tribe) notice Mowgli's intrigue with the fire and they too become fascinated. As the exciting music "Mowgli and the Fire — the Monkey's Attack" begins, tension builds and the monkey's capture Mowgli with the intent to make him create fire for them.

Following intermission, a 70s jazz funk style song entitled "Mowgli — Prisoner of the Monkey Kingdom" played. The Monkey King character Jacala, performed by Sergei Domrachev, along with six other monkey characters, were a lively bunch. Younger children were entertained by their silliness such as with their monkey pyramid formation. Longer dance pieces with the monkeys fused African and jazz dance styles that were truly fantastic to watch. With their swaying body movements and long striding struts it was the perfect amalgam for simulating primate animal gestures.

Mowgli is eventually rescued from the monkeys by his friends Kaa and Bagheera and shortly after, he sees Messua. Mowgli's animal friends observe his longing and come to realize he belongs among humans.

Once more, Shere Khan made a re-appearance to proclaim his domination. Mowgli and the animals rebel and a chase scene begins to the powerful music of "The Fight with the Tiger Begins." Watching the dancers dart back and forth across the stage doing swift grand jete's during the chase was thrilling. When Shere Khan is finally defeated, Mowgli realizes his fate lies within the human world. For the finale, Mowgli appears dressed as a human with Messua at his side and he bids adieu to his animal friends.

Visually, the production was stunning. Set designer Jean-Francois Revon created incredible backdrops with trees, distant mountains, and realistic hanging tree limbs against vibrant colors for night and day scenes.

Costumes by prominent designer A. Christina Giannini and assistant Anaya Cullen, were highly original. Most elaborate were costumes for characters with smaller roles such as the vulture whose wings were represented by large hand held fans and two walking trees propped up on block shaped stilts. The four peacocks in tranquil blue hues and flowing feathers were amazing and their make-up by Brittany McClelland — gorgeous. There were a few costumes where you couldn't quite tell what kind of animals they were without looking at the program. Among those were the porcupine, the mongoose, and the wolves.

Since the story is set in India, adding a few Indian cultural elements for authenticity such as introducing some villagers dressed in traditional Indian clothes and adding a few songs with Indian influence, would be a nice touch.

There were a number of comical scenes where the music style did feel a bit dated. This largely contributed to some of the rough scene transitions. The allegro's and adagio's performed to the classical and world music pieces were wonderful, but many of the humorous scenes that followed disrupted the flow of the softer moments.

Some character development with the humans could have been furthered, as certain scenes felt disjointed from the rest of the ballet. Such was the case during a piece danced by Messua and five other maidens. No reference was made as to whom or why these characters were present. The farewell scene could have also been slightly more climactic. Had there been more scenes with Mowgli and Messua interacting to show how their ensuing love grows and more bonding shown between Mowgli and his animal friends throughout the ballet, the final scene would have exuded their emotional connections more emphatically.

Jose E. Gonzalez and the Bandar-log/monkeys in State Street Ballet "The Jungle Book" Photo by Rose Eichenbaum

For such an ambitious undertaking with so many components, this first unveiling of "The Jungle Book" was a massive achievement. Dance companies entertaining the idea of presenting "The Jungle Book" will be pleased to know... "I produced the ballet with the hope that many presenters would like to bring it to their theatres. The entire production was built to be very mobile and the sets and costumes can easily travel," says Gustafson.

With such an engaging storyline, "The Jungle Book" is worthy of becoming an essential staple in most dance company repertoires. Given how much more challenging it has become to stimulate patronage in the global dance community, particularly when it comes to promoting new works, "The Jungle Book" could be just the right production to help many dance companies re-build their audience.

Jasmine Rios is a freelance writer and consultant for the arts. Email or visit