Friday, March 28, 2003

The drama of the birth of a new island is forcefully depicted in this photo staged near a new lava flow on the Big Island with hula dancers from Halau o Kekuhi in the production of "Hanau Ka Moku."

New dance emerges
from Pacific


John Berger

'Hanau Ka Moku: An Island is Born'

Presented by Halau o Kekuhi and the Tau Dance Theater

Where: Hawaii Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow
Tickets: $8 to $48 (plus $2 theater restoration fee)
Call: 528-0506

Peter Rockford Espiritu, artistic director of the Tau Dance Theater, describes himself as "a modern Polynesian" of Hawaiian, Samoan, Spanish, Filipino, Chinese and Caucasian ancestry, whose search for identity through dance often includes movement inspired by hula in his choreography.

There's a big difference, however, between "the essence of (hula)" and hula itself, and when Espiritu decided to create a three-act show dedicated to the birth of Lo'ihi, the next island in the Hawaiian chain, he knew that he'd need to do it in collaboration with a major hula halau.

"I always make it very clear the Tau Dance Theater does not do hula. ... A lot of what we do might look like hula, but I'm always very clear about that. We don't cross that hula line," Espiritu explained.

"I felt that this new island could be used as a metaphor for where we are today and where we're going, and it was obvious to me that, given the importance of this proposed work, I would have to collaborate with a halau. ... It would have to be a halau with deep heavy tradition, and you can't get much heavier than the Halau o Kekuhi.

"I really lucked out because they felt that this project -- documenting the birth of the island Lo'ihi -- was their responsibility, their kuleana, (and felt obliged) to write new chants for and about this island, and what it means to us at this point in time. They came up with the name Kama 'Ehu, which means 'reddish child,' and as we started to develop it, we came to the realization that this project was even larger than all of us."

Members of the Tau Dance Theater in a striking pose from "Hanau Ka Moku."

Honolulu will see the result of Espiritu's work with kumu hula Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele and Nalani Kanaka'ole of the Halau o Kekuhi when "Hanau Ka Moku: An Island is Born" is presented at the Hawaii Theatre tomorrow.

The production anticipates the birth of the island, with chants accompanied by a blend of hula kahiko and Western dance and theatrical techniques. A performance by Kanahele and Kanaka'ole and their halau would be an event in itself, but fusion projects like this one are even rarer.

The kumu hula and their dancers will perform together with Espiritu's troupe in some segments.

Espiritu says both groups have "lines" that they don't cross, but there are places that a distinct "new thing" is created.

"By the third act, both companies are almost indistinguishable at times. There is a true melding and meshing, and it is not hula and it is not modern dance. It is an entirely new thing, and this was created specifically for this work. There are parts where my dancers are doing hula movements, and there's one section that I did choreograph for the halau where they roll on the ground --- which is so not hula -- but those parts are very clear (as not being hula)."

He said almost the entire show is performed in Hawaiian, and the music performed live (primarily using ipu or pahu, but occasionally embellished with other hula implements), in keeping with the traditions of hula kahiko. Recorded soundscapes are used as ambient cues and there's a bit of English at the beginning of the second act. Other than that, English speakers can refer to the playbill for information on what's happening on stage.

The impending birth of a new Hawaiian island is celebrated in hula and dance in "Hanau Ka Moku."

LO'IHI, by the way, is located southeast of the Big Island, and is currently about 3,300 feet beneath the ocean's surface. Estimates of when the submarine volcano will reach the surface range from 50,000 to 200,000 years. Espiritu says that the important thing is that a new Hawaiian island is on the way.

"It's coming, and I think it's a force that needs to be acknowledged and reckoned with ... and the excitement of this new island coming up is what I wanted to explore as an artist."

He says that the show took more than a year to develop after he starting working on it with the two kumu hula he respectfully calls "the aunties." It continued to evolve following neighbor island performances last year.

"Hanau Ka Moku: An Island is Born" will tour the American mainland in 2004, but that's just the beginning.

"The long-term goal is ... when this island does establish itself, that this (work) -- particularly the traditional part -- will be performed on the island in honor of the island. We're creating new myths, and new chants and new dances, and what we create now -- if we don't blow ourselves up or kill ourselves off -- will become kahiko."

Espiritu knows that guardians of Hawaiian culture, and guardians of hula in particular, are always concerned when people talk about experimenting in any way, lest what remains of the pre-Contact knowledge be diluted or misrepresented. With "Hanau Ka Moku: An Island is Born," he says, the lines between hula and Western dance are clear, and no one who knows the hula genealogy of the Kanaka'ole sisters will question their decision to honor the next Hawaiian island.

"I think that people worry that hula will change, but the Kanaka'ole family will never change."

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