Kumu (hula master) Kehaulani Kekua was born into a family of hula masters and has been steeped in Hawaiian dance, chanting, culture, and ritual her entire life. In a rare trip away from her native Kaua’i and in cooperation with the Institute of World Culture, the kumu brought her two lead dancers to Santa Barbara to share their rich culture in a weekend of presentations, workshops, and hula classes.
At Victoria Hall Theater for Friday evening’s Hi’iaka, Journey of a Goddess, the warm climate only added to the tropical atmosphere as the sounding of the conch shell opened the show.
The audience was invited to “think of this less as entertainment and more as a mystical, mythical journey. Give yourself over to it and allow it to take you where it will.”
All three dancers ascended the stage dressed in red and festooned with garlands and crowns of green ti leaves. Dancers Tiana Laranio and ‘Aikane Alapa’i have studied these dances and traditions for many years and, like their kumu, have chosen a life of practicing and educating the world about Hawaiian culture and ritual.
This was not the hula of hotel luaus and Don Ho. Many of the movements were sedate and simple, but done with such reverence as to convey the deep meaning behind them. The slow, swaying steps, punctuated with more percussive stomps and quicker sequences, were accompanied by always graceful gestures of the arms and hands.
Accompanying the presentation were a series of breathtaking photos projected behind the dancers, many taken by the kumu. Whether it was a sweeping panorama of Hawaiian coastline, a dramatic image of lava hissing into the sea amid clouds of steam, or an exquisite close-up of intensely green tropical foliage, this ever-changing backdrop provided further texture and depth to the dances.
Drumming on an ipu heke, or double gourd, and singing in a clear, melodious voice, the kumu interwove ancient chants with a telling of the epic story of the fire goddess Pele, which continued throughout the evening in segments alternating with the dances.
In the telling of the story, her tone was sacred though not stern, and certainly not without playfulness. She described lava rolling so gracefully, “as if Pele surfed on the land.” It was as if we had been invited into her home, into her temple, to hear the stories closest to her heart.