From the Big Island With Love, Leis, Ukelele, and Hunks in Grass Skirts

Patrick Makuakane's San Francisco–based Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu ("the many feathered wreaths at the summit, held in high esteem") descended upon Manhattan like a blessing from a gentler world. This huge outfit—36 hula dancers plus music trio—won widespread attention here not simply because they're glorious and deserving: We're all curious about Hawaiian dance. Most of us know only what Hollywood or Waikiki nightclubs have shown us. A fab dancer himself, with a buff body, pleasant voice, and sense of humor, Makuakane has turned frustration at this ignorance into a positive mission.

Straightforward hula expressing the island's wealth—sky, sun, land, flora, fauna, legend, and spirit—is here if you want, in a chorus that, like a classical corps de ballet, spans the stage and takes your breath away with its drive, precision, and silky grace. Or perhaps you expect kitschy production numbers. Makuakane offers these, too, but with satirical twists. For the full camp effect, he could have replaced his cheesy, grass-skirted ladies in Gay Hawaiian Party with men. Instead, he followed that number with Elements, an ensemble set to hard-pumping club music; his hunks flipped and whipped those skirts around after all!

Though he doesn't mix folkloric moves with foreign dance styles, Makuakane marries hula's storytelling skills to unexpected tales. (Firemen's Hula, for instance, includes gestures of climbing rescue ladders and maneuvering bulky hoses.) He also experiments with hula-compatible rhythms and romantic lyrics from contemporary singers he loves, like Annie Lennox and Etta James. The best part of A Love Trilogy packed the stage with women dressed like Madame X in sleek black evening gowns, moving as one to Roberta Flack's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Bodies stretched tall and rippled quietly with subtle but powerful shifts of arm levels, position, and shape—an elegant flock of birds whose joy fills the earth.

 
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