HULA, LIKE MANY indigenous dance forms, has undergone numerous transformations in the centuries since its "discovery" by Europeans. Originally a religious ceremony honoring the gods and goddesses of the Hawaiian Islands, hula went underground after missionaries arrived in the 1770s and declared the dance pagan. In the late 1800s, Hawaii's last ruling monarch, King David Kalalaua, called back hula as an entertainment with which to honor his majesty, and choreographers incorporated several stylistic nuances and steps that were influenced by European court dance.
When Hawaii lost its monarchy, hula lost its financial support and cultural appeal. Then, during World War II, Hollywood discovered hula. The dance form was commercialized and beamed around the world via Elvis movies, airline commercials, Hawaii Five-O, and even achieved fad status in a bastardized form with the hula hoop. "That's when the flash came into hula," says Michael Pang, co-director (with Racine Maka Klein) of the school and dance company Halau Hula Ka No'Eau, based on the Big Island of Hawaii. "And because hula isn't easily taught, it had to be simplified so people in the movies could learn it. Still, Hawaiians embraced these ideas because that's what was available at the time."
Since the "Hawaiian Renaissance" of the 1970s, however, Hawaiians have returned to the more traditional forms of hula. "There's been a renewed emphasis on doing things Hawaiian," Pang says, "and of course hula is the most visual of Hawaii's art forms. Now the Hollywood hula is looked at as anti-Hawaiian. But it's part of our history, and we cannot deny that."
Nonetheless, the program that Pang and his 13-member troupe will bring to Walker Art Center concentrates on other chapters of hula's history. A ceremonial dance for the volcano goddess Pele describes the dance form's mythical origins; in those hulas created for kings and queens during the 1800s, or Hula Ku'i period, the dancers wear long skirts and jackets reflective of period dress.
More modern hula dances incorporate influences from imported cultures, drawing, for instance, on the exchange between Hawaii and the American West during the early part of this century. In one piece dancers wear pants and Roy Rogers-style hats, arms waving overhead as if spinning a lariat. "From our concert, audiences get a sense of how hula evolved," Pang says. "And yet the underlying meaning is basically the same: that hula was one of the Hawaiians' only means of recording and documenting daily life. Hula was the lecture hall, the library, the theater, the archives for the Hawaiian people."
All of the works on the program reflect the gentle, flowing style of Pang's long-time mentor, Maiki Aiu Lake (known as "the mother of the Hawaiian Renaissance"). One's understanding of hula is passed through generations of teachers, says Pang, and Lake's style can be traced to the Hula Ku'i period. Pang's style originates from and continues this approach: "Even when I choreograph, I try to do the same styling," he says. "If my dances look like my teacher's, then I've succeeded in retaining and passing down a style. Anyone can teach the dance. But to pass down the styling is quite difficult."
As a descriptive and interpretive dance, hula uses the entire body to express emotion and to illustrate poetry in the songs and chants that accompany it. Always a pelvic-centered dance, hula invites controversy today regarding the correctness of its hundreds of feet, arm, and head movements. "Because Hawaii is made up of eight islands," Pang says, "every island looks at the movement a little different." And in the midst of the many sovereignty movements currently stirring up political currents in Hawaii, "hula fits in and it doesn't. Hula has always been here as an art form. Lots of people embrace Hawaii and our culture through the dance. One of our major philosophies at the Halau [school] is that hula is life."
"We've found people outside of Hawaii have a need and desire to learn about our true culture," he says, explaining the reason for the company's U.S. tour. "We're trying to bring as much of Hawaii to the mainland as possible and not make it so commercialized, but instead as traditional as possible. Because hula is a tradition for us." CP
Halau Hula Ka No'Eau perform Thursday at 8:00 p.m. at Walker Art Center; call 375-7622 for tickets.