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Whether you believe in guardian angels or garden-variety gnomes, it's possible there are times when you feel you are being watched, and maybe protected, by invisible entities. As a young boy growing up on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, Marcus Quiniones often played near temple sites or ancient burial grounds where he felt the presence of "unseen people," mythical beings his father called the vrilyas, also known as menehune in the local folklore.
Now, at 24 years old, Quiniones believes in unearthly forces of a different sort. "There are spirits, people who are made of air," he explains with quiet intensity. "You have to accept them because you are one yourself." In the case of Quiniones's first evening-length performance work Circle Around the Island, opening this weekend at the Southern Theater, the guiding spirit is that of the artist's father, a shaman who died seven years ago after the family moved to Seattle.
"When he died I thought, 'What happens next?'" recalls Quiniones, one of ten children. "It seemed like I didn't know anything about him. He was in his 60s when I was born and I mainly remember him as an older man, always working. Work was our play. Then a year later, I had a dream, and his voice was right by my ear. I realized it was possible for someone to always be there with you."
In creating Circle Around the Island, Quiniones drew upon his memories but sidestepped strict autobiography in favor of an allegorical treatment with the help of co-director Zaraawar Mistry. "The work is a fable and so it doesn't dwell on anything for too long. Like in campfire stories, it allows the imagination to fill in the gaps," he says, and then briefly describes the tale.
"In the beginning the father says to the boy, 'Gather your rocks and build a temple for me.' The boy doesn't know what to do or how to accept this. It's not his goal. But the temple has a dual meaning for the father. It represents his mind and body." When the father swims out to sea and never returns, the boy must complete the temple. And with the help of the unseen people, the labor soon evolves into an act of tribute, similar to Quiniones's own motivations in creating his work.
Much of the storytelling in the piece is told through hula dance, as well as other movement contributed by performers Sandra Agustin, Sun Mee Chomet, Kaori Kenmotsu, Ajay Singh, and Deborah Thayer. Quiniones first learned hula while in kindergarten and sees the dance as key to a resurgence of Hawaiian culture that includes reviving the language, politics, and other traditional ways lost after the coup that claimed the island as a state. "The missionaries saw hula as debauchery, but sensuality is really what you feel in Hawaii, with all of the sights and smells," explains Quiniones. "Hula follows that feeling naturally."
While many may be familiar with seeing hula performed by women, Quiniones says the dance was first practiced by men as a form of prayer in the patriarchal structure of early Hawaiian society. "When I learned hula," he remembers, "there were variations in what men and women did with their hands. Now it's all interchangeable. Men dance with women, and men move with their hips as well."
Today's hula divisions tend to involve the different philosophical approaches to preserving the integrity of the form in a tourist-based economy. "There are groups who are spiritually based and they look to the earth to give them energy. They dance for the spirits and this runs in their family lineage," Quiniones says. "And then there are dancers who do hula for spectacle or competition. They cross the sacred line."
When Quiniones left Hawaii for Seattle as a teenager, he assumed hula was out of his life, but he continued to dance even after moving to St. Paul, where he graduated from Hamline University. "I'm trying to figure out what my purpose is, my goal--my temple," says Quiniones. "I've always participated in the arts, but I've never accepted that until now."
Circle Around the Island plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through April 25 at the Southern Theater; (612) 340-1725.