The well known Oakland halau (hula school) the Academy of Hawaiian Arts participates in Hula’s survival and evolvement in its own way. This mission of the Academy of Hawaiian Art is Oakland, “to cultivate and evolve the cultural arts of Hawai'i, including dance, music, composition and language.” Under the direction of Kumu Hula Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu, the Academy of Hawaiian Arts makes its voice loudly heard to those listening in Hawaii, even if it is not as well known to folks in the Bay Area.
For a number of reasons, the choreography of Kumu Hula Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu, the head of AHA, is next level. “Everyone gets excited to see his dance at the Merrie Monarch Festival,” hula dancer Alana Pollack comments on Ho’omalu’s annual performance in hula’s largest and most prestigious competition, “He never wins.” Although this might seem contradictory, there is a very specific reason that Ho’omalu’s work, however exceptional, is not completely accepted by kumu hulas, some even find his work offensive. Ho’omalu does not stick to tradition. In his hula performance this past Sunday, at the 2015 Ia ‘Oe E Ka La Hula Festival. Hoomalu’s halau, or hula school, did not compete. “Did you notice he did not compete” asked the lively announcer who sat on the panel of judges for the competition. He did not compete, but graced the audience with his powerful choreography at the end of the competition dances.
Ho’omalu’s work breaks boundaries, and in a discipline such as hula which is grounded in tradition, doing so can be dangerous, isolating and controversial. In his Ia ‘Oe E Ka La festival performance, Ho’omalu’s wahine, female, dancers wore malu, a type of loincloth which is traditionally only worn by kane, men. Both wahine and kane dancers performed on stage together, so his dance did not fit into any of the competition categories for dances, in which men and women dancers perform separately. Hoomalu also had his dancers carry paddles on stage and incorporated them into the dance. Even though hula dances often evoke images of the traditional outrigger canoes, it is unusual to actually have outrigger paddles on stage used as props for the dance. Finally, Hoomalu added previously unseen dance moves for both his wahine and kane dancers. In doing so he is effectively inventing his own style of hula.
Hula is a Hawaiian dance steeped tradition in a place, Hawaii, where tradition has historically been threatened and approrpiated by external forces. Since contact with the West, missionaries long viewed hula as either a sinful act to be eradicated, or an exploitable form of entertainment. In 1820, Protestant missionaries deemed hula sinful:
“The whole arrangement and process of their old hulas were designed to promote lasciviousnous [sic], and of course the practice of them could not flourish in modest communities. They had been interwoven too with their superstitions, and made subservient to the honor of their gods, and then rulers, either living or departed or deified.”
Pushed underground, “clandestine hula schools continued to pass down the old traditions” in the 1860’s. The struggle to retain and practice Hula has been fought for generations in Hawaii and, surprisingly, in Oakland, California.
The well-known chanter of Hawaiian song, Mark Ho'omalu has released two albums and is included in the soundtrack of Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. The soundtrack, which peaked at #1 on the US Billboard top soundtrack in 2002, includes "He Mele No Lilo" and “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride.” Hoomalu released his second album, entitled “Call it what you like...” in 2003. The title stands out, as perhaps Ho’omalu acknowledging that what he creates in hula and in music does not fit into a preformed mold.
Whether dancing to praise a Hawaiian god, to tell a story or to stun an audience, Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu and his dancers and fellow musician makes a statement. Here is Oakland, the dancers and Ho’omalu himself are surrounded by a very different culture than what one would find in Hawaii. Is it this difference that opens the door to innovations in Ho’omalu’s choreography, music and overall approach to dance? Whatever it is, there is no question that his dances are “a head and shoulder above the rest.”