KEEPING THE PEACE BETWEEN THE TRADITIONAL AND THE MODERN: Speaking with Hula Master Patrick Makuakane

By Rob Taylor

October 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Photo by Lin Cariffe
Photo by Lin Cariffe

CHOREOGRAPHER, DANCER AND KUMU HULA (master teacher) Patrick Makuakane is a dynamo of thoughtful energy and good-natured cheer. Speaking with him in a coffee shop near his home in Potrero Hill, I was reminded that a key part of what I’ve always enjoyed about the performances by his dance company, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, is the boundless enthusiasm for both his culture and his company that he displays on stage as master of ceremonies. Hula is very lucky to count Makuakane as an ambassador to the world.

We started by talking about the show he’s bringing to the Palace of Fine Arts this October, and how it was born from time recently spent with his first teacher. Makuakane explains, “when I went back home [to Hawaii] earlier this year for a four month sabbatical, I was able to dance again with my Kumu, Robert Cazimero. We did a show called Hula Guyz that was very successful, so I asked if he [would] bring his company to San Francisco and do a show with my company that focuses on similar themes but in collaboration with my guys.”

Usually in a Hawaiian show you’ll see a mixed gender company or just woman, but “seeing a show that’s just men is very unusual. Robert’s company— Na Kamalei O Lililehua—is only men, and I grew up in that company.”

Finding male dancers can be tough in general, and Hula is no different. But according to Patrick, “There’s a strong cultural aspect to it that really resonates with a lot of men, so there’s an “in” because doing Hula becomes a cultural thing rather than a ‘dance’ thing. It’s easier for them to get attached to the idea. A lot of Hawaiian men use dance as a vehicle to express their native identity.”

The Hula Guyz performance in October will replicate and further develop what was created in Honolulu: “I came home and taught my men some of the choreography from the first show, and we have some pieces that only my men will do, and are new to this show, and some that only Robert’s guys will do.” One of the challenges to creating this show is that “Hawaiian culture has a strong focus on balance. You never do anything without including men and women, and for a while I toyed with the idea of bringing in a woman to do a solo, but finally I decided it will be okay to just be all men.”

Almost as notable is that this will be a rare opportunity to see Makuakane dancing; “Over the years, I’ve danced here and there, but I stopped enjoying it. I realized that I love dancing with the company I grew up dancing with. With my company, it’s time for my dancers to shine. I’ll chant and drum and dance in the background. In my company that’s my place.” But because Hula Guyz brings the company Makuakane grew up dancing in to San Francisco, he will be able to switch places, if only for a night.

The collaboration between the company Makuakane has been building in San Francisco over the last 29 years and the company he began working with as a teenager in Hawaii leads us to discuss his initial attraction to Cazimero’s form of Hula. “He was pushing the envelope of what could be done with his company when I was dancing with them.”

Patrick has been able to push the envelope a little further because he built his company on the mainland in San Francisco. He says, “I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder all the time, and I‘ve been able to use my own personal taste and standards to decide whether or not something works. Of course you still have put it in front of an audience and see how they respond. If I was still living in Hawaii and trying to do this, I don’t think I would be as much as a risk taker. But here it’s celebrated.”

Despite his risk taking, Makuakane always holds himself to a standard that retains the integrity of the movement, even if he’s playing with them. “I love taking traditional movements and maneuvering the gestures so that they look similar. The Hula person will recognize the Hula in the movement, even as they see it’s not Hula.”

Makuakane is also noted setting his choreography to diversity of musical sources far flung from the canon of Hula—opera, pop music, rock. One of his most company’s most popular pieces is a Hula to Roberta Flack’s rendition of The First Time Ever I Saw our Face.

He explains, “I used to be a DJ, and I collected a lot of music over time. I’m constantly sifting through to see which pieces I want to play with. Some of the pieces that come out of that exploration have a strong Hula grounding, and some don’t. But my company has a strong Hula grounding, so whatever I create for them needs to be in a form that they feel comfortable using, or else it’s going to look odd. You won’t see us jumping, or leaping through the air. It just doesn’t happen for us, but I’ve discovered there’s a lot that I can do with the vocabulary I was given.”

There is a sense of “either/or” that often permeates to artistic worldviews of a lot of artists who practice traditional art forms, born in part out of the increasingly common experience these artists have seeing their culturally-based art forms appropriated by artists and media in Western culture without much regard and with a superficial understanding of the culture where those forms were established over hundreds, or even thousands of years. The understandable response by culture bearers to this seeming accelerating trend is to say either you maintain the forms exactly as your learned them, otherwise your work contributes to the dissolution of the culture.

It’s a charge that is often thrown at traditional artists trying to evolve their work within their tradition, and it’s a line that Patrick is aware of, stating “that’s the challenge that lot of my fellow [traditional] choreographers face—can we evolve our cultural art form while simultaneously preserving it? I say yes, of course we can. My goal is maintain the integrity of our traditions but give them a modern flavor.

“I think Hula is inherently beautiful. It doesn’t need to be changed. But there are so many other ways we can express ourselves through our art form that involve traditional movements but with changes to give them a contemporary feeling, or use contemporary music.”

Makuakane continues, “there is a lot of confusion around this, because what I don’t do is take traditional dance and chants and turn them upside down. I don’t do that. I teach and perform the traditional dances in the way I was taught. But there are no rules in what you can do beyond that. If I want to create a new Hula to Madonna, there are no rules that say I can’t do that.”

Makuakane agrees that it is vital “to have a really good understanding of tradition. That’s why I went back to Hawaii about 10 years ago and studied traditional Hawaiian dance with another Kumu, Mae Kamamalu Klein.” Studying with Klein, who is revered as a traditional Hula master, “gives me confirmation and validity in [the] Hula world, because although I’m doing all of this, I have this experience. She and Robert came from the same teachers, so it’s still part of the same lineage, just expressed differently.”

At the same time, he is quick to explain that his own immersion in Hula wouldn’t have occurred if he had started in a purely traditional grounding. “Robert was considered a bit of a renegade, but if he wasn’t like that, I wouldn’t have been interested in Hula. He showed me that Hula was so much more than what I had expected.” Only after beginning with a “renegade” Kumu was Makuakane able to get to a point where he could “see how the beauty in how this [modern takes on Hula] came from that [Traditional Hula].

“At first I didn’t appreciate the tradition as much because I wanted all the flash and glitter, but once I was immersed in Hula I began to understand how beautiful that is. The evaluation was backwards—I started with the less traditional teacher, and then went back to the traditionalist.”

Makuakane is also lucky to have found two Kumus who allowed him to study with the other. “A lot of people don’t get to go back and forth the way I do. You start with one, and then you move on to the next one and move on entirely from the prior one. I asked permission—somehow I got it from both of them.” Going back to study with Klein really helped “solidify my traditional foundation; the idea was to help me get close to the edge, but not to fall off. I really enjoy the challenge of doing both. I really enjoy passing my dance on to students the way I learned them, intact.”

This October allows audiences to see some of the work that Makuakane is passing to his students. October is the normal home season time of year for the Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu performing company, but every five years, Makuakane rests the performing company and instead brings his entire school—the Halau—to the Palace of Fine Arts for a Ho’ike. This is a grand recital that features hundreds of dancers on stage at the same time.

“I laugh because every five years I say I have an opportunity to rest from doing a big show. But trying to marshal 260-plus people into a show is a bit of a logistical maze, but it works on a different part of my brain.”

“I love being able to give this opportunity to all of the classes. The performing company would not be able to do what we do without the support of these students. They help all the time, and their dedication is moving to me. So we want to give them an opportunity to be on the big stage. It gives them something to look forward to, and is a chance for them to up their game. Normally when they’re just in class, week after week, it can be hard to get the inspiration,” without the goal the event provides for his students.

The Ho’ike I saw five years ago was mammoth, and while dancers of all skill levels were present, the skill level in the dances performed tilted towards high. In addition, the scope of the show—as well as the intense dedication of the students—made it memorable one-of-a-kind experience.

Even in this show, which is essentially a recital, Makuakane wants “to create something memorable. So we craft a line that’s unique and special and engaging. I’m coming home each night exhausted, because there’s this constant internal dialogue going on about how to inspire these dancers— they aren’t the performing company, but I am holding them to a certain standards,” that are very high for dancers who are not regular performers.

He smiles in a way that is just a little bit devilish, and I know that even in the Ho’ike there will be something special that only Patrick Makuakane can bring to a dance recital: “Sure it will be a recital, but it will not be your grandma’s recital.”

Hula Guyz will be presented on October 18 at 2pm and 7pm. Ho’ike Nui O Na Lei Hulu will take place on October 25 at 7pm, and October 26 at 12pm and 5pm. For more information about both shows visit naleihulu.org


Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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