Adaptation leads to innovation in the performing arts.
Consider: We wouldn’t have “West Side Story,” based on “Romeo and Juliet,” if it didn’t serve a dollop of jazz dancing and story-progressing tunes rendered by conflicted teens from two opposides sides of the tracks. Similarly, “Rent” added a rock core to Puccini’s “La Boheme” opera, speaking a new language targeting a contemporary audience not commonly considered for the Broadway genre.
In this spirit, this past weekend’s visit of Patrick Makuakane’s San Francisco-based halau, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu — in two sellout performances at the Hawaii — discovered resources for reinterpretation with uncanny and unexpected results. Makuakane, a former Oahu dancer-kumu hula with roots in Robert Cazimero’s Halau Na Kamalei, is a prolific craftsman without boundaries. His joyous, inventive, adaptation element created flash and wattage for a changing audience of Hawaiiana fans; his was a halau of a performance (I attended Saturday night’s show), laden with genuine,creative bursts, with a foundation trackable to tradition.
Makuakane’s latest production, exploring mele extracted from and inspired by vintage Hawaiian newspapers of the past 100 years, had solid island ties, embracing history but served with his keen sense of adventure and exploration. His daring, bold style and manner have stunned and, yes, even offended Hawaiian purists in the past (think Merrie Monarch Festival) but there’s no denying: Makuakane is onto something vivid and vibrant and immensely refreshing. Advance alert: Kumu Cazimero will join Makuakane’s halau in a San Francisco dance-out in October; should be visual fireworks and fun.
If there was any fault in “Ka Leo Kanaka (Voice of the People),” theme of the endeavor, it might simply be the inert, limp, prolonged opening narrative, done in the darkness with the theater’s curtain still down, doing precious little for anticipation of the launch. However, Once the lights went on and the narration pau, there was the energy and physicality of hula, of course, about the legend of Pele, her sister Hiiaka, and their relationship with the handsome Lohiau … fodder for hula ‘auana. Yes, a rousing opening dance, despite the awkward and turtle-paced prelude.
The heart of the evening embraced visuals of vintage nupepa (newspapers) and stylized drawings of Pele and ‘ohana, providing the backdrop, but the party didn’t reach sizzle level until the pre-intermission montage of Hawaiian jazz and soul, with a stunning hula solo to “Embraceable You” featuring Desiree Woodward Lee in a willowing rose gown. Then joyful syncopation started popping and pounding, with halau ensemble members jitterbugging to “I’ve Got Rhythm” and resorting to flash-dancing spontaneity supported by audience applause.
Before the curtain fell, “Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wa-I,” aka “Hawaiian War Chant,” provided the cherry on the cake: razzmatazz with contagious hand-and-foot-and-body action. It was the essence of adaptation with ideology, elevating dance to an art form that transcends Hawaiiana and sashays into the realm of the iconic. Merrie, but perhaps not for Monarchs.
It was all incredibly ingenious, with dashes of hip-hop and boogie-woogie, recalling the era of big-band dancing and prancing. Clearly, an intermission was needed.
The second act included more samplings of newspaper-originated nibbles — personal messages from commoners, lamenting the vagaries and challenges of life and relationships; a hula about papers with dancers hoisting newspapers; and a emotional and powerful lament about the death of a royal child.
Just when you think the newspaper homage was overstaying its welcome, a nimble and nuanced coupling of two unrelated modern songs, Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” and Spandau Ballet’s “True.” The juxtaposition of a hip-hop hit with a romantic ballad provided contrast and challenged the dance couple, Kahala Bishaw-Fisher and Jason Laskey, to be frisky with the upbeat and smooth with the balladry, and they killed it with formidable chemistry and artistry. Again, it was Makuakane, thinking and reacting outside of the box.
Kupaoa, the Honolulu duo featuring Kihau Hannahs-Paik and Kellen Palk, were house musicians in live portions as well as on their solo newspaper-originated mele, ”Water Lily.” Kris Lee also was an accompaniment.
As a kumu, Makuakane is a do-all dude. With his huggable-bear demeanor, he is at once lordly but accessible, very conversational in his intros, passionate about his craft, and takes an occasional turn as a chanter as well as a singer. His pride emanates from his accomplished company of nearly 30 of both genders.
So: Stop the presses! Makuakane may not be a Merrie Monarch winnah (he acknowledged this) but he knows how to adapt and turn the familiar into the fabulous. He is a master of innovation, bar none.