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Dancing with the legends
October 16, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
‘Kahekili” made love … and war … on the Castle Theater stage last Saturday night. It was fitting that this made-on-Maui production that has brought ancient hula into concert halls across the Mainland and the Hawaiian Islands should have its final Hawaiian performance at the place it began.
Not as grand as some past hula epics and concerts that have played the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, “Kahekili” is also less intimidating, more accessible.
As they present the legend of the 7-foot-tall, 300-pound warrior chief, kumu hula Hokulani Holt, Keali‘i Reichel and Cliff Pali Ahue let their story unfold through a blend of hula and lyrical, powerful narration by Moses Goods.
With support from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Keep It Hawai‘i Recognition Award from the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, “Kahekili” gives audiences — especially those far away from the Hawaiian Islands with little previous experience of authentic hula — the chance to “meet” the warrior chief and his lineage, and in the process, to visit the distant realm where the Hawaiian ali‘i lived.
The hula-drama format provides a venue for robust hula kahiko, pulsing to the voice of the chanter and the adrenalized rhythms pounded on the ipu. Not mere musical accompaniment, it’s a primal, visceral sound more like a vital sign, connecting a place deep in the pit of your stomach to the ancient sources of the culture of the islands.
The dancing in the production is athletic and spirited. Body types that would never be mistaken for runway models are highlighted by the authentic costumes that reveal lots of tattooed flesh.
Less is more with the staging, which presents the dancing with minimal sets or props. Members of the ali‘i, or ruling class, are transported up the Castle Theater aisles to the stage, carried on the shoulders of other dancers. The spare, modern staging lets audience members fill in the historical setting with their imaginations — even as it is recognizing hula as art, taking its place amidst all the other world-class dancing that has happened on this stage.
But equally important is the drama. Dating back to a time before there was a written language in the islands, “Kahekili” reminds us that there are other ways of telling stories.
Genealogies and history are expressed through hula. Hula can offer lusty instructions for sex and procreation. It can resemble a martial art, giving training for conflict or recording victory on the battlefield. Or it can just be fun, a game, a party, a celebration.
“Kahekili” encompasses all that, turning history and legend into dance — and dance into language.
Aspects of the production were reminders that old Hawaii was presided over by gods of nature. Ancient protocols acknowledged the almighty power and constant awareness of the natural environment in the lives of the two-legged animals who walked on these islands and swam in these waters.
Hawaiians understood ecological balance centuries before science coined a term for it. This understanding informed both their spiritual and practical sense of their home.
But their world was also a realm of conflict, where lineages fought for control and dominance. Kahekili’s claim to glory was as a warrior and military strategist in a chain of islands soon to be united by canoe navies and hand-to-hand combat that would make streams run red with blood.
The production shows conflict to be inevitable, as integral as the possibilities for peace and love in human nature.
While “Kahehili” feels designed for export, offering faraway audiences a window into authentic Hawaiian culture, seeing it at home produces a different sensation. There’s a sense of ownership, a familiarity, like recognizing Keali‘i Reichel not as kumu hula or recording giant, but as just one of the dancers in the show.
It makes you relate to Kahekili, not as a historical footnote or emblem of an exotic race of people — but more like National League baseball star and St. Anthony grad Shane Victorino, a hometown hero.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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