New-wave hula & 3rd-stage Dadaism hit the Bay Area

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday October 30, 2012
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The Hula Show last Saturday was one of the most enjoyable dance events I've been to in a long time. There is no dance more wave-like, more intoxicating in its rhythms than Hawaiian hula �" and like all the great traditions, hula has a huge range of forms within it, from the royal forms danced at court to the dance of the people.

As practiced and taught by the master Patrick Makuakane, director of San Francisco's Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, hula is a living language, and we saw amidst traditional Royal Hawaiian hulas a huge array of new "danced poems" �" hulas based on club-dance forms, performed in clothes people wear now, to music people dance to nowadays �" that brought much joy and comfort to the soul. Most of all, the show brought a huge sense of relief, to see that at least one tradition has not gotten mired-down in identity politics. Stateside Hawaiians know how to bring their dance into the here-and-now without going a) all pious and stuffy, or b) taking it to the other extreme by gnarling everything up (as ballet is doing) by getting technique-heavy, adding pirouettes and tweaks to the steps, so that you never see a phrase that means anything. With "Hula mua," as the new hula is called, the levels of wit and "with-it" contemporary awareness are like 30s jazz, like those of Cole Porter's day, when "Anything Goes" and "Putting on the Ritz" were the last word in what's happening now.

Makuakane is a Hawaiian-San Franciscan �" he interrupted the show to let us know the Giants had won, 2-0. And he's willing to re-tell old Hawaiian myths in a San Francisco way: for example, he transformed "the maiden who seduced the great fish who had dragged the Hawaiian Islands up from the bottom of the ocean" into "the hot sexy boy in a grass skirt and not much else who seduced the great fish." That dance was by itself a playful, uproarious wonder, worth the price of admission.

Perhaps the greatest example would be "The Birth-Certificate Hula," a dance in honor of the  hospital in Honolulu where President Obama was born. It just happens to be the same hospital in which Patrick Makuakane was born."If Jon Stewart were to create a hula about the birth certificate controversy," I quote the press release, "this would be it."

It would be hard to describe the rapture we felt watching this dance. Most of us who are about to vote in the general election know how stupefying it has been to see the Tea Party "birthers" refusing to believe in Obama's citizenship. This dance sublimated that maddening feeling into an intellectual ecstasy that lasted the whole time the dancers performed their simple line-dance. It's a pretty dance, no more difficult than the Electric Slide, set to a sweet ukulele tune with wickedly funny lyrics and cute hand-gestures (e.g., signing a document and rubber-stamping it) of the sort that all hulas have. Not only is the dance witty, it's a kind of dance many of us can do, like the Achy-Breaky or the Cha-cha slide, which have, like most club dances, entered the culture unheralded, under the radar. The "Birth-Certificate Hula" joins a host of line dances in honor of President Obama, who is the first president since Madison to have a dance named after him. There are at least a dozen on YouTube, my favorite being the Obama Slide:

Dance scholars know that concert dance draws its root strength from the vernacular: the waltz was a popular craze before it entered ballet, so were the czardas and polka. Every 30 years it happens again: Balanchine filled Concerto Barocco with shag rhythms and Charleston kicks; Twyla Tharp post-modernized ballet with aerobics and Broadwayisms. Makuakane's got his dancers costumed in clothes kids wear now �" board shorts (which of course have their origin in the surfer culture of Hawaii) or little black dresses, and they're dancing to country-western/Hawaiian tunes like "Uehe, Ami, and Slide."

The best of this is, none of it is forced. Rockabilly fused with Hawaiian back in Elvis' day. There are precedents for even the most outrageous new ideas: the sexy-boy dance had been preceded by a traditional hula in honor of the genitals of King David Kalakaua, a prayer for the king's fertility, which has explicitly masturbatory gestures.


Beach party

Meantime across the Bay, a different kind of avant garde was in evidence at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, where Cal Performances presented the long-anticipated revival of the 1970s Minimalist Einstein on the Beach by Robert Wilson/Philip Glass/Lucinda Childs. The late-Dadaist, Minimalist opera had been sold out long before it opened Thursday night for its time-warping, five-hour-long nightly run. Although about 90 minutes of each show were devoted to Childs' pure dancing intermezzi, which were choreographed in an exacting minimalist mode that taxed the performers in every conceivable way, the show's stylization of movement extended over the entire evening, with every performer having to maintain the composure and posture of a department-store-window mannequin no matter what else they were doing. Childs's choreography is deservedly famous. What I was not prepared for was to discover that the Asian-American dancer who mimicked poses from Jerome Robbins' "Little House of Uncle Thomas" (from The King and I) was not a dancer at all but a gloriously-voiced lyric soprano. Such a show belongs in a great university's arts series, and it was great that they brought it to town.