Hawaiian Myths and Legends on Feb. 23
By Anne Herman
Fire. Since time began it has been a source of power beyond imagining.
Creator and destroyer, fire has demanded man’s reverence and fear in the face of its terrible capriciousness. Pele, the volcano goddess, is the essence of fire in Hawaiian mythology. She was the focus of IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre’s production of “Hawaiian Myths and Legends.” Friday’s performance at Atwood Concert Hall was a theatrical interpretation in song, narrative and movement of myths surrounding this sexual, temperamental goddess.
The production promised much from its beginning. Words echoed in the darkened theater, speaking of the endless night from which the Hawaiian islands were born. As the curtain rose, three cocoons hung suspended over a sea of billowing white. Shapes stretched and elongated as dancers pushed their way out. These husks became ropes for the dancers who twisted, dropped upside down, climbed and thrust themselves away from the silken bonds.
In an abrupt, somewhat disorienting change, a woman in a deep green velvet gown pulled darkness around her as two voices told the story of Pele, her human lover Lohiau, and her sister Hi’iaka. While her chalk-white face remained expressionless, the woman’s strong hands grasped, poked, and clawed at the words of love and seeming betrayal.
The curtains opened behind her. Dressed in red, with wild hair and bleached white face, Pele slowly stepped and crouched about the stage. She swept her hands out to grab the earth as she leaned on a forked, stripped branch. Three men in floor-length feather capes appeared and Pele retreated.
The men representing Pele’s human lover Lohiau moved with majestic grace, their fantastic capes flowing and swooping like bird wings. Pele circled one as she approached him, and he enfolded them both in his bright feathers as the lights dimmed.
Interestingly, Pele’s explosively mercurial presence was often not as pervasive and overwhelming as one might have expected. The dancers who portrayed Pele’s personas red-clad seductress, cigarette-smoking destroyer of the land, ash-covered crone certainly tried to accentuate her heat and sexuality. But their actions were surprisingly muted.
This can be explained in part by choreographer Cheryl Flaharty’s use of Japanese Butoh dance for much of the movements. An idiosyncratic avant-garde dance form, Butoh can be frighteningly aggressive as well as exquisitely subtle. Flaharty chose the latter expression and while theatrically potent at times, the actions tended to get bogged down in physical minutia that left the bewildered audience behind.
But there were moments of grotesque beauty and startling emotions. At one point Pele morphed into a creature consumed by her own jealousies. Her hands stabbed at the air, fingers crimped into claws as she stumbled and pulled herself across the floor with toes that spread out to grip the earth. At another point, cigarette smoke erupted from her as she burned the land with a preening sexual nonchalance that only partially covered her deep-seated anger.
“Hawaiian Myths and Legends” ended with a scene that seemed to capture the pallid theatrical creativity of much of the production. On a darkened stage, invisible dancers poured luminescent paint over themselves like lave oozing and bubbling down a volcano’s slopes. A wonderfully imaginative idea, it didn’t quite create the terrible power and beauty of this fiery force of nature.
IONA had some superlative material to work with here. It was a shame that it didn’t quite live up to its own creative expectations.
Anne Herman holds a master’s degree in dance and has been a consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts.