Finding the Way: Kumu Hula Makuakane Choreographs the Story of Ancestral Navigation

By Neelanjana Banerjee


When World Arts West executive director Julie Mushet approached Patrick Makuakane with the idea of commissioning a dance piece based on Hawaiian astronomy and Maui, the ancestral Polynesian navigator, the Kumu hula—or hula master—wasn’t exactly sure how he was going to pull it off.

Makuakane was fascinated by the idea that Maui, who is usually referred to in Hawaiian mythology as a trickster figure, was more than likely a real person – or the name of a clan of navigators. He studied a book by his close friend and Hawaiian scholar Lucia Tarallo-Jensen called the Maui Dialogues, all about the 12 challenges of Maui, which each represent a navigational pathway through Polynesia.

“Astronomy is just not my forte,” Makuakane groans in his sunny Potrero Hill home and office. “A lot of the book was in astronomy terms and I was like: ‘How am I going to do this?’ It took a lot of successive readings before I got it.”

But eventually it clicked and Makuakane will premiere the work on the first weekend of the 30th San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival with 37 dancers from his professional company Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, which translates to “the many feathered wreaths at the summit, held in high esteem.”

Mushet said the idea first came to her when she attended a planetarium show while visiting Hawaii and was surprised that the constellations were being described by their Greco-Romans names. Afterwards, she researched and discovered that there was a rich history of Polynesian celestial navigation that had nothing to do with Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper.

“I got really excited when talking to Patrick and the idea that this piece would reintroduce what Hawaiian people saw when they looked at the sky,” Mushet said. The piece was funded by a Creative Work Fund grant that Mushet and Makuakane worked on together.

For Mushet, Makuakane was the only choice to work with on this project. “He’s just brilliant and exceptionally talented,” she said. “An extraordinary human being that has such deep respect for the work he is doing.”

Makuakane’s roots in hula go back to the mid-1970s, during the Hawaiian cultural Renaissance when there was a renewed interest in Native Hawaiian dance and music. He first got the bug when he was 13 years old and joined the Hawaiian Club in school, but initially just to learn the songs.

“At that time, hula wasn’t something that a lot of men were doing,” Makuakane remembers. “My first teacher was like: ‘You gotta dance and sing, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.’ In two weeks, I was hooked.”

From there, he went on to dance for some 10 years with Na Kamalei, the premier male hula dance troupe in Hawai’i at that time. Makuakane modestly rushes over this time in his past, but the deep impact of becoming an artist at such a revolutionary time is obvious. He speaks with reverence about the importance of hula, especially for the Hawaiian people who have become a minority in their own land.

“Especially in Hawai’i, Hula is one of the last bastions of tradition,” Makuakane says seriously. “It is a huge connector to our past. As soon as you start chanting—you’re saying the words and chanting in that primordial fashion—you have an immediate connection to your history. It opens up this portal to your ancient past.”

But as much as Makuakane is steeped in the tradition of the art, he also believes and supports its evolution. Currently hula can be grouped into a few categories, including super traditional hula kahiko which is danced to chanting and traditional percussion and the more contemporary hula ‘auana which is accompanied by songs and ukuleles. Makuakane is probably best known for pushing a newer category of hula called hula mua, which is often danced to electronic dance music. A quick sampling of his company’s shows from the last 23 years show a wide range of ideas and musical styles: from the dancers representing flying vaginas, to a piece about the work of Christian missionaries, to one with dancers dressed in Indian clothes performed to a Boy George song to a hip hop hula piece accompanied by an Eminem song.

“When the cultural renaissance happened in the 70s, and a lot of us were using that to connect back to our traditions, I think it was very visceral, emotional and spiritual,” Makuakane says. “But it took 20 years to make an academic connection, where people are understanding, instead of just coming from emotion. Whereas before it was just dance and music that was getting people involved, now it is all kinds of art forms, the language is making a huge comeback so there’s really a lot more of the culture that is being exposed.”

Makuakane moved to the Bay Area in 1984 and started his dance school shortly after. Now, he says hundreds and hundreds of students have passed through and he currently teaches some 300 students at Daniel Webster Elementary School, which is conveniently located across the street from his house.

“The floor is horrible, it’s sticky, it’s the cafeteria, it’s concrete, it’s just not good for your feet, but it’s home. We work it out,” Makuakane says.

Like many practitioners of ethnic or cultural arts, Makuakane’s company is not made up of professional, full time dancers—but dedicated artists who also have full time jobs. “We rehearse on Sundays from 12noon to 6pm or 10am to 6pm, depending. I want people to have time with their families,” he says, but acknowledges the extraordinary commitment. “Marry me and you give up the rest of your Sundays, it’s a period of adjustment!”

That’s why Makuakane thinks the platform of the Ethnic Dance Festival is so important. “[The Festival] has been really great for us because we were like the small little hula company that could,” he says, laughing. “It wasn’t until we did the Ethnic Dance Festival that we had exposure outside of the mainstream Polynesian dance community and people were referring to [me] as an artist. It’s like: “Ooh, I’m an artist? Well! I thought I was just a hula teacher.”

And there is nothing a true artist likes more than a challenge and the commissioned show for this year’s festival was that in many ways. Makuakane not only had to get through the difficult astronomy but also had to find appropriate music. “Where are all the chants written for Maui and the stars? There aren’t any,” he says. “I had to work with the scholar to compose them, because I really wanted to keep it traditional.”

And because this piece has so much history and tradition tied up in the story, Makuakane wanted the audience to really understand it beyond just “watching movement and pretty costumes.”

“I don’t want my audience watching us in a glass box, so it’s always a challenge trying to create something that the audience will get,” he says.

Even though this piece is more traditional than Makuakane’s usual choreography, he believes in the evolution of the traditional hula form: “We’re a Hawaiian dance company so all the movement comes from a hula vocabulary,” he says. “My hope is that we retain the integrity of the form with our dancing.”

At the writing of this article, it is still a month until the show, so Makuakane has a lot of work to do and says the next few Sundays will be long ones. But he admits that teaching hula makes him feel most at home in the world.

“Every time I am there at hula, I feel like I am home,” he says, smiling. “I take a little mini vacation when I am in class.”

This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of In Dance.

Neelanjana Banerjee spent many years performing in Bengali folk dance dramas under the tutelage of her mother. She is the managing editor of Hyphen magazine and the editor of YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia