News: Evolving Hula

Like most Hawaiians growing up in the islands, Patrick Makuak-ane was introduced to hula at a young age. In high school he realized it would be part of his life forever. “This is what I was meant to do,” he says. “Hula is my life. It is the key that opened the doors to my Hawaiian identity, connecting me to my heritage.” Attending college in San Francisco, Makuak-ane fell in love with the City by the Bay and ultimately chose it as the home base for his 40-member dance company and school, N-a Lei Hulu I Ka W-ekiu.


In 1985 he began teaching hula to a handful of friends in a small dance studio owned by Joffrey Ballet co-founder Gerald Arpino. Today Makuak-ane’s h-alau (school), with over 300 students, fills the auditorium of the local elementary school where classes are held. Most evenings, and all day Sunday, you can hear the dulcet strains of ukulele, mele (song), oli (chanting) and laughter permeating Makuak-ane’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. Not a traditional school or dance company in Western terms, a h-alau is an extended family, a catalyst for community.


Students—adult men and women from college age to retired grandparents, Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian—come from all over the Bay Area, united in their love of the islands. Some are missing home; many are drawn to Makuak-ane’s loving persona.


“Hula is about inclusiveness, the shared power of aloha,” Makuak-ane says. “There is something magical about a group of people moving together in an authentic cultural expression, regardless of age or body type.”


Makuak-ane has developed his own trademark style called hula mua (“hula that evolves”), which blends traditional movements with non-Hawaiian music—everything from opera to pop. He says, “You have to start with tradition and then move forward.”


Every few years he assembles a new class and begins the journey of passing on chants, songs and dances—both ‘auana (modern) and kahiko (ancient)—he learned from his teachers, the hula masters John Keola Lake, Robert Cazimero and Mae Kam-amalu Klein. Hula is tied to Hawaiian language, and Makuak-ane is committed to incorporating it and Hawaiian history into all his lessons. On occasion, a student may be selected to join his dance company, which has toured nationally from Honolulu to New York City and appears in an annual show in San Francisco.


Makuak-ane’s 2010 production, 25 Years of Hula, A special anniversary performance, runs October 16–17, 22–24, at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. It presents a mix of traditional dances and hula mua favorites like “The Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé, the disco-inspired Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand and one of his more political works, Salva Mea, about the arrival of the missionaries and overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. He is also creating a new suite of dances inspired by the Kumulipo, a sacred Hawaiian creation chant.


Makuak-ane says, “The best thing about teaching is that I get to dance with my haumana [students], no pressure, just aloha and engagement with one another. I look forward to what the next 25 years hold!”


For more, see:


Rachel Berman is a native Hawaiian who has danced with Paul Taylor Dance Company, Ballet Hispanico and American Repertory Dance Company, among others. She’s currently company manager at Company C Contemporary Ballet in California.


Photo: Patrick Makuak¯ane and Kahala Bishaw (by Julie Mau, courtesy of Patrick Makuak-ane)

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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