Life & Style: Mowgli Learns the Viennese Waltz

Life & Style: Mowgli Learns the Viennese Waltz
Life & Style: Mowgli Learns the Viennese Waltz

A recenT visit to Jodhpur, found me staying in the same room that I had occupied way back in 1994. It reminded me of my earlier visit and all the interesting happenings during my two day stay.  Early in the morning it was rather chilly as I was sitting next to a window and drinking my cup of coffee, when I saw a very unusual sight—a grown man on the lawn on all fours, trying to move like an animal. Backwards and forwards he went for over half an hour. A rather large man muffled in a long scarf was keeping an eye on him. It looked like Kung Fu being practiced.  I had heard that a film crew was staying at the hotel and thought it must be an action film in the making; the actor was practicing some new martial art. Everything became clearer over breakfast—I discovered that the actor was Jason Scott Lee, son of the famous Bruce Lee!

Lee had been practicing every morning for his part as Mowgli in Walt Disney’s new version of Jungle Book. This was not an animated film but one with live actors. Needless to say, seeing Jason on all fours was a source of much amusement to the hotel guests, who woke up extra early just to catch a glimpse of the routine. I for one do not remember seeing Lee on all fours in the film when it was released in 1995. Perhaps the film’s director, decided to leave it out in the final editing. But this story is not about Mowgli and the Viennese Waltz. 

Jason certainly knew all the intricacies of martial arts. In fact he could almost be considered an authority on Kung Fu and Karate, having played the part of Bruce Lee in Dragon, a film based on his famous father’s life. But in Walt Disney’s Magnum Opus—The Jungle Book—Jason Lee was required to waltz— which he drew a complete blank! Enter J J Roderiguez! Dance teacher extraordinaire, from Cours de Danse, Mumbai’s famous dance school. JJ, reputed with the ability to teach anyone to dance, was considered just the person to take Mowgli through the steps of the Viennese Waltz. 

Some guests were visiting the city’s 500-year old Mehrangarh Fort which was one of the film’s important locations. They kindly gave me a lift to see the backdrop for the film shoot. A number of scenes of Kipling’s Jungle Book were being filmed at the Fort—miraculously transformed into a captured British Garrison.  The production team had created papier mache’ additions to the battlements and even added a domed temple, where none existed. All the cannons lying unused for centuries, were polished and positioned and huge caskets of imitation cannon balls were piled up on the ramparts. The dance sequence was planned in the lower courtyard, where the sets for the banquet and ball scene were being readied – scheduled to be filmed the following week. But there was a major problem, which we discovered later.

Considered one of the most important scenes in the film, it is here that the hero Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee) and the heroine Kitty (Lena Heady) are to meet on the dance floor. Mowgli was expected to wear white silk pajamas with a jewelled sash and turban while Kitty would be in a layered silk period gown with her hair tied high in a chignon.   

A hot and bothered JJ was seen directing rehearsals at the set with his two assistants Marie and Helen Gonzalves. As the strains of Stauss’ Tales from the Vienna Woods filled the air, couples began to twirl to the music.  In trying to keep up the circular movement in time to the music, there was more than one collision and in one case, a total collapse. Rehearsals were cancelled for the day.

Next morning the rehearsals were shifted to the hotel. The film extras, all probably below the age of 25 years  dressed in their shorts, lungis and rudraksha beads were a most unlikely lot for a dignified ball scene. But J J was totally unfazed and patiently demonstrated the finer nuances of the Viennese Waltz. This time it was the lilting notes of The Blue Danube that filled the hall and 30 tense couples (mostly barefoot) gripped each other and commenced their circling, One could hear them feverishly counting “one two three-one two three”  The Viennese Waltz is not one of the easiest dances for a generation brought up on electronic music.

JJ while taking a well-deserved rest, volunteered his task was to choreograph the ballroom scene and teach the cast to Waltz. According to him the older actors such as John Clease and Sam Neil, were no problem at all.  But the extras, casual tourists, were particularly difficult to teach. I congratulated him on landing a job teaching western dancing to people from the west. He modestly answered, “It’s my Goan blood that is responsible for my sense of rhythm”.

The film’s ball room scene was perfectly choreographed and as I watched the dancers twirling round and round in a graceful waltz, I silently congratulated JJ—he had managed the impossible! 

Alas, Joao Joaqui Rodriguez, Mumbai’s legendary ballroom dancing instructor is no more. He passed away on November 5, 2013. His wife Dorothy and daughter Crystal, continue to run Cours de Danse the most famous School of Dance in Mumbai, while JJ must be busy teaching the angels a step or two.