Taking Hula From Ancient Tradition to 21st Century Art

On stage in their grass skirts and colorful shirts, the hula dancers look like a traditional island group. But when the music starts, it’s obvious this performance is anything but traditional. With their stylized, lively movements, the dance seems closer to Broadway than to the ancient dance developed in Hawaii by the Polynesians. But for those familiar with Patrick Makuakane’s style, it is another opportunity to enjoy his interpretation of hula mua, or progressive hula.


‘The Natives Are Restless’

Kumu Hula (Master) Patrick Makuakane and his innovative form of hula are the subject of a new book, The Natives Are Restless: A San Francisco Dance Master Takes Hula Into The 21st Century, by journalist and writer Constance Hale.

Hale, who was born in Hawaii, but is not ethnically Hawaiian, started dancing hula at the age of 7, and wanted to explore the long history and rich tradition of the art.

She says that to many people, hula is all about pretty girls in traditional costumes waving their arms. But hula is not about movement at all. In its traditional form, she explains, hula is all about poetry and storytelling.

“‘Hula kahiko,’ that means ancient dance, is generally a dance to chant. Hula kahiko also praises gods and goddesses [and] places in the island. Sometimes hula tells love stories, especially native classical love stories.”

The movements in this traditional hula are powerful and angular. Hale says it begins, for example, when the dancer bends at the knees, goes as low to the ground as possible, and then the movements of the legs and the arms are straighter, with angles.  

Modern hula

The dance has evolved over a long period of time. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, hula began to change with the introduction of Western instruments. That’s how the modern hula, or what’s called hula auana, came into existence.

“And, of course, in the 20th century, you have the influence of Hollywood and the tourism industry,” Hale said. “Many more hula songs were written in English and described quite secular subjects. Hula auana is very fluid and graceful and more danced to guitars and ukuleles and Western melodies, as opposed to Hawaiian chants.”

By the mid-20th century, Hawaiian culture was in decline. “Hawaii had been annexed to the U.S,” Hale noted. “There was a great influx of the American culture. And the Hawaiian language had almost become extinct. And many cultural practices were on the way. There was a resurgence in the late 20th century. In 1970s, 1980s, hula was really part of that resurgence.”

Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane

That’s when Patrick Makuakane was attracted to hula.

“He sort of discovered hula at the age of 13 or 14,” Hale said. “He loved it and was actually dancing professionally in Honolulu as a teenager with one of the famous musicians in Hawaii. He practiced hula in a traditional way, but when he moved to San Francisco and started to participate in the underground club scene, he started to push hula in new directions.”

In The Natives Are Restless, Hale describes this master’s style through the dances he choreographed for his company.

“The hula company is Na Lei Hulu i ka Wekiu. Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane has invented his new style of hula, which he calls ‘hula mua’.”

Hula mua

Sometimes hula mua dancers dress in hula traditional costumes. Often, they don’t. “For example, it might be a tree leaf skirt,” Hale said. “Then on their head, they might be wearing a garland of ferns or wearing wrist and ankle bracelets of nuts. Those are the traditional costumes. In hula mua, or modern hula, they might be wearing black velvet gowns or colorful street clothes. It always is going to depend on the song.”

Though the hula mua style uses many traditional movements, Makuakane incorporates some very nontraditional choreography.

“For example, in some dances, you’ll see movements that look more like Broadway than like hula. The dancers align themselves in a formation and throw open their arms in a way that’s very Broadway.”

And the music is different. “[It] might be Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, or it might be Madonna’s song, Rain, or it might be an electronic track by a British band. He takes music from all over the word and pairs that with traditional Hawaiian vocabulary.”

Hula narratives

What also separates Makuakane from other hula choreographers is that he’s imagined narrative shows. Hale explained, “He’s choreographed a full-length evening like a one-hour or two-hour show taking on a major theme or a major story, a piece of mythology, or a historical account. ‘Salva Mea,’ one of the dances in the troupe’s Natives Are Restless show, is an example.”

Salva Mea depicts — in a traumatic way and with electronic music — the clash of Christianity and the native Hawaiian culture, when Christian missionaries came to the islands in the 1820s. “He has dancers going across the stage as in ballet, or maybe it looks a little bit like Riverdance, if people are familiar with the Irish clog dance,” she said. “He’s taken some movements from other dance styles, he’s integrated them into some dances.”

Hale says Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane is not the only native Hawaiian artist who realized that in order to live, hula must change and grow. But he stands out as a pioneer in pushing the boundaries further and exploring what it means to be Hawaiian in the 21st century.

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