Hawaiian Mythology and Myths about Hulaposted on October 25th, 2011 by Pamela Vachon
This just in: Hula dancing is not just about undulating hips and swaying arms and gentle voices intended to lull you into a catatonic stupor following a pig roast and poi platter. Neither, apparently, does it necessarily include grass skirts and coconut bras.
My singular experience with hula dancing and Hawaiian culture, prior to Saturday night’s performance of Kūlanihāko‘i: Living Waters in Montclair, was at a luau at the Polynesian Resort Hotel in Walt Disney World when I was twelve. Can you blame me for my preconceptions?
I suppose, for many of us who live in cultures where palm trees are scarce, access to this culture and art form is similar. Even for those with the wherewithal to travel to Hawaii, a performance of hula is more about the tourist than it is about the authentic ritual and custom. (More grass skirt, less sweeping creation myth and storytelling.) But Kūlanihāko‘i aims to bridge this gap: accessible hula, presented in a framework of an ancient Maui creation myth, steeped in authenticity and custom, with occasional English narration to guide the audience through the performance. (This last element was the only thing I would have done without, for its sometimes uncomfortably Disney feel. Titles would have better kept the story succinct and allowed comprehension in real time.)
Some of the preconceptions of hula are still there, of course. The hips do sway, often bedecked with bustle-like fabric to exaggerate the motion. Arms often evoke the gentle feeling of water lapping at a sandy shore. But just as often the movement is angular and structured, with precision that would make the most practiced Rockette swoon. Skirts are full and shoulders bared, but nary a strand of grass is in sight, the costume design instead more austere, with tones emphasizing sand and water.
It was vocally that the performance most surprised and impressed me. The singing is, without exception, rich and throaty, and every performer on stage has the resonance to fill the space to the rafters. The performance incorporates pieces from a many-hundreds-of-years-old and many-thousands-of-lines-long chant that nods to Hawaii’s ancient oral storytelling tradition. (As an aside, I learned in the post-performance talk that Hawaiian was not a written language until the middle of the 19th century.)
On the ride home, another preconceived notion was also dashed—that which supposes there are not so many authentic fans of hula in the northeast. The three people I shared a ride with had varied reasons for attending the performance: one had been taking hula classes in the city for five years (a preliminary internet search revealed as many as fifteen classes weekly available in the New York–to–Philadelphia corridor), one had traveled to Hawaii several times and was thrilled to find a performance closer to home, and one had happened upon Hawaiian mythology in his academic studies and was interested in the culture.
Thanks to Peak Performances, the Nā Kinimakalehua company, its performance of Kūlanihāko‘i: Living Waters, and even my three shuttle bus companions, my notions of hula have changed for the better.
Pamela Vachon has worked for Lincoln Center Festival and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet; she is a food blog author and occasional dance critic.