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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 3, 2004

Dancers animate Hawaiian legends

By Carol Egan
Special to The Advertiser

If theatrical spectacle and vivid stage imagery is what you crave, "Hawaiian Myths & Legends," the current revised version of IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre's retelling of these tales, is a must-see at the Hawai'i Theatre. Based on the adventures of Pele, Hi'iaka and other gods and goddesses, the production abounds with images of fire, smoke and ash — creation and destruction.

From the beginning of the world, narrated from offstage, the curtain opens on desolate, windswept China-silk seas churning beneath three cocoon-shaped bundles suspended in midair. Gradually, the creatures inhabiting these nests come to life and descend to join other beings emerging from the sea.

With frequent narration to guide us, we have little trouble following the tales presented in a variety of styles. Artistic director/choreographer Cheryl Flaharty, trained in modern dance and butoh, combines those forms, along with aerial techniques and dance theater, to create a rich, 90-minute collage of movement.

While the butoh may not be as distorted and grotesque as one may expect from the postwar Japanese style, nor the modern dance as choreographically developed, the aerial work attributed to David DeBlieck and Andrea Torres is hypnotic and beautifully executed. The dancers are not highly trained technicians, but they exude a stage presence that is more relevant to the choreography and that often borders on pantomime.

Flaharty has a painterly eye, evident in every scene. The production is rich in visual elements, particularly the elaborate, elegant costumes, the sparse yet symbolic sets and props (both designed by Flaharty), and the excellent lighting by Donald Ranney Jr.

In a section entitled "You're the One for Me," the story of Pele and the Pig God is retold in hip, contemporary fashion, thanks to the witty, biting text of Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl as chanted by a (taped) chorus of men and women.

Pele (Summer Partlon), flirtatious and sassy, confronts the egocentric and sleazy Kamapua'a (Sami I.A. Akuna) to rhythmic chanting followed by the insistent beat of Ravel's "Bolero." Backed by a quartet of same-sex buddies, each of the deities jousts for control in the battle of the sexes. Lined up across the stage, the group executes a clever chair dance reminiscent of Pina Bausch, the grande dame of German "Tanztheatre."

Occasionally, a striking stage picture loses interest by being prolonged with little or no action. Such is not the case, however, with an aerial duet and two fire dances. And Flaharty saves the best for last. Suffice it to say that the grand finale reflects the Pele theme in a most theatrical way.

Dancers Partlon as Young Pele, Maile Baran as Hi'iaka, Akuna as the Pig God Kamapua'a, and Geneva Rivera as Angry Pele are particularly noteworthy performers.

Equally outstanding are aerialists Torres and DeBlieck in a luscious "Ohi'a Lehua" trapeze pas de deux.

Those seeking an exciting kinesthetic experience may be disappointed by this production. But anyone looking for spectacle and sheer visual stimulation is sure to leave the theater satisfied.

"Hawaiian Myths and Legends" can be seen in its final performance tonight.