Deep within the halls of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., is a grand room known as the Statuary Hall. All 50 states have contributed sculptures of "distinguished persons" to represent great moments from their history. Most of these contributions are brass or marble statues of a bunch of dead white guys. It's pretty impressive, but somehow a bit less than colorful.
However, there is one statue in the hall guaranteed to make you stop and take notice. Representing the state of Hawaii is a marvelous gold-plated tribute to King Kamehameha Pai'ea. Standing proudly in colorful robes and a loincloth with a massive headdress falling behind his shoulders, the great leader demands attention. With a scowl on his face and a dangerous-looking spear in his outstretched arm, this is one memorable figure.
The warrior chief who united the Hawaiian Islands into one nation is a revered figure in the history of the island state. His memory will be honored again on Tuesday, September 28, when Halau O Kekuhi presents Kamehameha: A Hawaiian Epic at Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium.
The ancient traditions of Hawaiian culture include many forms of dance, chant and martial arts. The Halau O Kekuhi is the school that holds the responsibility of keeping these traditions alive, a responsibility that is passed through generations. The current two Kumu Hula, or artistic directors, of the Halau are Nalani Kanaka'ole and Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele.
Under the direction of the Kanaka'ole sisters, Halau O Kekuhi has earned the National Endowment for the Arts' most prestigious offering, the National Heritage Fellowship Award.
For many years, the presentations of the Halau were never performed outside of Hawaii. But in 1996, an evening-long production titled Holo Mai Pele toured the mainland to great acclaim. It brought ancient traditions, historical and spiritual, to wide audiences through its fully staged theatrical format. Kamehameha: A Hawaiian Epic is the second touring show the ensemble has presented. The Gammage show is the mainland première of the work.
By phone from Hawaii, Pualani Kanahele says non-Hawaiian audiences react well to the unfamiliar and very traditional performances. "They often don't know what we are saying, but we offer a libretto so they can read before the show to follow the program. It's like watching an opera being performed in Italian. Most people in our audiences find it very enjoyable. They are often surprised at how easily they actually understand without the language."
On the common misconception that hula consists mostly of the clichéd image of pretty little hula girls, she's quick to offer clarification. "From our point of view, hula is a totally different animal from what most people think it is. Hula originally comes from the movements of nature. We stick very close to that. No one seems to really know at what point hula became so bastardized.
"One of the purposes of our actually wanting to do this outside of Hawaii is that we truly wanted to expose more people to our culture and what we have to offer as a culture. That culture is much more than just the 'hula' that most people see and take very lightly. We have wonderful literature that people never get a chance to see or hear, and this is one way of exposing those aspects of Hawaiian culture. There are also many people in Hawaii who know very little of the culture and aren't exposed to the sort of thing we dance about."
As to why this sort of show hasn't been presented until recently, she says, "People are afraid to do that. Many people here who perform the hula are still trying to please the greater audience instead of trying to deliver more authentic Hawaiian culture. So in pleasing the larger audience, they do the same old thing over and over. Many of them feel uncomfortable with attempting the more traditional kinds of dance. It's a whole political thing. We feel it's an honor to be able to do this and will continue to do it. Several of us at the dance school teach Hawaiian studies and language at the university and community colleges. What we dance is what we actually teach, and we've been doing it a long time. We strive to keep it as honest as possible."
Kamehameha: A Hawaiian Epicis presented on Tuesday, September 28, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. The show begins at 8 p.m.; there is a preshow "Hawaiian Experience" in the lobby from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. Tickets range from $5 to $29. Call 480-965-3434 for details.