Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane brings ‘Unusual Places’ to Hawaii By John Berger

Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane doesn’t see hula as something that should be performed only in traditional settings.

In the 33 years since he founded his halau, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, its dancers have brought hula to the Burning Man festival and to the aisle of a commercial airplane in mid-flight, to the stage of an opera house and to the gritty outdoor environment of a New York City sidewalk. Makuakane has also taken hula to San Quentin State Prison, where growing numbers of Native Hawaiian and other inmates have embraced hula as a way of connecting with the islands.

Hula in so-far unexpected settings will be the theme this weekend, when Makuakane and halau Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu return to the Hawaii Theatre for two performances of his current show, “I MUA: Hula in Unusual Places.”

Expect performances of traditional hula kahiko and contemporary hula ‘auana as present in some of the unusual places the halau has traveled, along with vibrant examples of what Makuakane calls “hula mua,” a hapa haole dance style of his creation that mixes elements of hula with various types of contemporary Western dance.

WITH “HULA in Unusual Places,” Makuakane and his halau, Na Lei Hulu I Ke Wekiu, share the message that hula need not be limited by music or language. For instance, a chance meeting at a Bay Area ethnic music festival several years ago resulted in the halau appearing at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. The halau danced to the “Flower Duet” from French composer Clément Philibert Léo Delibes’s 1883 opera, “Lakmé,” with two members of the San Francisco Opera singing the parts of Lakmé and her maid.

Presented by Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane and Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu

> Where: Hawaii Theatre
> When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
> Cost: $40 to $100
> Info: 528-0506, hawaiitheatre.com

“I don’t feel that I need to limit this expressive form of dance to just Hawaiian music,” Makuakane said, taking a call at his Bay Area home. “Any kind of music that inspires me — off I go. Anything from opera to alternative to pop to another language — and traditional (Hawaiian) pieces, we love those as well. I’m just not limiting myself.”

The halau will perform “Flower Duet” at the Hawaii Theatre this weekend. It is often performed to a recorded soundtrack, but for this performance, Makuakane is bringing singers — coloratura soprano Maya Kherani and mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney — with him. He describes the difference as “like dancing to a 45 (rpm) record of the Brothers Cazimero, and then dancing to them ‘live.’”

In larger terms, Makuakane says hula is the equal of any form of dance.

“I’ve witnessed a lot living here in San Francisco, and there is — wow! — such a community of really dedicated dancers and choreographers here here in the city, who create work that is unique and powerful,” he said.

“It truly is that, and I can honestly say that I’m proud that hula can hold up to all of those dances.

“They’re all different, but we have something that is as beautiful as these other genres. … The Bay Area has a very liberal, progressive way of showcasing art in whatever form, so we’ve had many opportunities to do what we do wherever we can, in many interesting and weird and off-the-cuff places, and so that’s the impetus for the show.

“What I come away with, no matter how unusual of a place in which we perform, is that hula has a way of making itself at home,” he said. “It’s the kind of dance that most people immediately respond to — especially if they haven’t seen it.

“There is something people understand when they watch it, even when we do a modern or a stylized version of hula, they understand that there is an authenticity and a history. … Everywhere we go, people respond to hula in a very visceral way.”

Hawaii responded viscerally when Makuakane and Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu presented “The Natives Are Restless” at the Hawaii Theatre in 2000. “Another culture from thousands of miles away taught us to be ashamed — and we believed them!” was one of the themes in a production that saw bare-chested na wahine (women) dancing hula kahiko (ancient hula) before the haole (non-Hawaiian) religion of Christianity triumphed over traditional Hawaiian religious beliefs, the Hawaiian government was weakened and then overthrown, and Hawaiians became a marginalized people in their own land.

People talked about it for months afterwards.

IN KEEPING with the concept of “unusual places,” and in connecting with those who may not have connected with hula before, Makuakane said he has relishes the opportunity to share the experience of hula with San Quentin inmates.

Na Lei Hulu I Ke Wekiu came to the inmates’ attention when the halau was shown performing on television. Makuakane met them through intermediaries, and the relationship built from there.

He describes it as “as good fit,” although “you never know what you’re going to get in prison,” he said.

“The smart thing about this group is that it’s listed under ‘religious and spiritual practices,’ it’s not considered ‘dance.’

“My official title is ‘spiritual advisor,’ and I’m not in there to ‘teach class’ but rather to ‘conduct services.’”

“For me, there’s an irony to that that I luxuriate in,” Makauakane said.

“When I was a kid, I never responded to going to church. It just never connected with me, but hula did — in a way that I felt I was part of a larger community, and that I was doing something in the service of the greater good.

“This appeals to the guys (in San Quentin) in the same way. Even though many of them aren’t Hawaiian, so there isn’t that cultural connection, what there is is a community connection.

“They’re excelling at an art form, and recognizing that is really triumphant for them. To witness that, and be a part of it, is very special.”

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