Arts & Culture

Santa Barbara’s State Street Ballet gets natural inspiration when preparing for 'The Jungle Book'

Peacocks are among the many colorful creatures in State Street Ballet’s ‘The Jungle Book.’
Peacocks are among the many colorful creatures in State Street Ballet’s ‘The Jungle Book.’ COURTESY OF STATE STREET BALLET

When the dancers at Santa Barbara’s State Street Ballet learned they were going to perform “The Jungle Book,” they visited a wild group of mentors — the animals at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

“There were a lot of families at the zoo and people taking photos,” said Jennifer Phillips, one of the dancers in the show. “And we were there taking notes.”

By observing real jungle animals, the performers portraying jungle animals figured they could incorporate some of those instinctive movements into their work.

But, of course, with “The Jungle Book,” there were also other influences.

“We all watched the Disney version,” Phillips said. “A lot of people read the book. It was a fun thing to get into.”

The ballet, which comes to San Luis Obispo for an afternoon show Sunday, was the brainchild of Rodney Gustafson, who founded the State Street Ballet. While many Americans remember the animated Disney movie from 1967, the ballet is based on the original “Jungle Book” — a series of stories written by British writer Rudyard Kipling in 1894.

While that means the ballet didn’t need any special permission from Disney, it also means they had to find other music. Luckily, a ballet company in the Czech Republic had done a “Jungle Book” show a decade earlier. And Czech composer Milan Svoboda had written a score that the State Street Ballet could use.

Of course, that means “The Bare Necessities of Life,” the most memorable tune from the movie, is not a feature of the ballet.

“There is no ‘Bare Necessities,’ ” said Phillips, who also acts as the ballet’s company manager. “But Baloo is definitely there.”

That’s Baloo, the laid-back, carefree bear, one of the principal animals in the story.

“The Jungle Book” follows a boy named Mowgli who loses his father on a jungle expedition and is saved from a tiger attack by a pack of wolves. As he is raised by the wolves, he also learns about the laws of the jungle from a black panther named Bagheera, and from Baloo. In the end, the boy questions his identity when he comes into contact with humans.

The State Street Ballet, which has also performed “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” wanted a show that would feature more male actors, Phillips said. This cast is actually half male.

The performance features elaborate costumes and set designs, along with a modern take on both the music and dance.

It’s also family-friendly — though not oversimplified, Phillips said.

“It’s a great time to bring your kids and introduce them to the ballet,” she said. “But it’s not ‘Barney.’ It’s not a kiddie show.”

Phillips, a veteran dancer in the ballet company, portrays Messua, a jungle girl.

“My partner, who plays Mowgli, is my childhood friend,” the Hawaii native said. “We grew up together. We’ve known each other since we were 8 years old.”

While she knows him very well, she doesn’t know any of the San Luis Obispo County actors invited to perform. While touring with “Jungle Book,” the ballet has invited local children to perform small parts on stage with them. For this performance, children from the Atascadero Fine Arts Academy and the San Luis Obispo Ballet Academy will comprise the Little Monkey Corps.

“It’s been a special experience for the families,” Phillips said. “And for the kids, they get to work alongside the professionals, and they get to dance in a beautiful theatre with us.”

Because of the relative close proximity, the ballet master has been able to come up to San Luis Obispo County to prepare the kids.

Usually, the local dancers have less face-to-face interaction before the show.

“When we do it in Missouri, we send them the video and say, ‘Good luck— we can’t wait to see you,’ ” Phillips said.

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.