The Hawaiian Nutcracker performed at UH Hilo

The Hawaiian Nutcracker is set in the 1800s at Hale Ali‘i, the royal palace named by Kamehameha III, with lead characters of a young David Kalākaua and Lydia Kamaka‘eha, both future monarchs of Hawai‘i. Dozens of dancers from UH Hilo, Hawai‘i Community College, and the Hawai‘i Island community will perform this adaptation of the holiday classic.

By Leah SherwoodPhotos by Raiatea Arcuri.

Couple in ballet pose, she in pink tutu, he in royal costume.
At a dress rehearsal of The Hawaiian Nutcracker on Nov. 9, 2019, the Dream Pas de Deux is performed by Kassidy Wilson of the UH Hilo Dance Ensemble as young Lydia Kamaka‘eha (the future Queen Lili‘uokalani) and Ka‘eo Cachola as young David Kalākaua (the future King Kalākaua). Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.
Earnest Morgan
The late Earnest Morgan. The beloved UH Hilo dance instructor co-created The Hawaiian Nutcracker 29 years ago.

Celeste Staton, a dance instructor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, says it takes a village to pull off a production like The Hawaiian Nutcracker. The performance—Nov. 21-24 at the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center—marks 25 years since the last staging of the original work created by the late Earnest Morgan, a beloved UH Hilo dance instructor, in collaboration with O‘ahu choreographer Willie Dean Ige. The production was first performed 29 years ago.

Dozens of dance students from both UH Hilo and Hawai‘i Community College will perform in this 2019 production, along with dancers and choreographers from the Hawai‘i Island performance community. The production also features past and present UH Hilo student choreographers. The stage design and props were created by UH Hilo students from the Basic Stagecraft Laboratory course (DRAM 280L) taught by Ariana Bassett, theater technician and resident designer at UH Hilo.

The Hawaiian Nutcracker is set in the 1800s at Hale Ali‘i, the royal palace named by Kamehameha III, with lead characters of a young David Kalākaua and Lydia Kamaka‘eha, both future monarchs of Hawai‘i. In the story, the keiki receive gifts, one of which inspires a colorful dream of adventures in the magical realms of a child’s imagination. The beauty of this adaptation of the classic work is found in the infusion of imagery, myth, environment, and cultural diversity of Hawai‘i—described in the bill as “the young King on a magical Christmas voyage to the Mythical Island of Lō‘ihi, [where] along the way he encounters dancing dolls, the Elemental King, Poliahu, Ice Maidens, Hi‘iaka, graceful crater birds, a playful Mo‘o, a duo of Honu, beautiful underwater creatures and jolly jellyfish.”

Young girl gives boy a wrapped gift.
(From left) Tyler Dela Cruz as the young Lydia Kamakaʻeha, the future Queen Liliʻuokalani, and Micah Polloi as the young David Kalākaua. Polloi is a dance student from N2 Dance, a performing arts school in Hilo specializing in hip-hop, jazz, and voice. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.
Drawing of King with visions of birds, jellyfish, islands, flowers, fish, ocean.
Image from The Hawaiian Nutcracker play bill.

The production’s lead choreographer is Kea Kapahua, who performed in the original as Princess Nahi‘ena‘ena and the Fire Goddess. “We had done auditions and invitations for The Nutcracker before, but in this situation, we wanted to use the university and community college classes so we chose certain sections that would fit with each class,” she explains. “It’s inspiring to see how many people, students, and classes are involved.”

The dancers include students from UH Hilo dance classes Ballet I (DNCE 160), Jazz Dance I (DNCE 180), Ballet III (DNCE 360), and Dance Ensemble (DNCE 401).

Couple in formal wear in ballet pose with right feet pointed to the right.
At dress rehearsal for The Hawaiian Nutcracker, (from left) Landon Ballesteros, a recent graduate of UH Hilo with a bachelor of arts in performing arts, and Mirei Sugita, a UH Hilo Dance Ensemble student, in the roles of members of the court and guests at the ball. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

Kapahua says that the Ballet I students have limited experience incorporating props and set elements in their dance. “This is the first time that they are in a theater and it is not just dancing,” she says. “They are learning how to move with large props and how to adjust the choreography to the space.”

Jackie Pualani Johnson plays the role of the Queen. Johnson, who retired from UH Hilo in 2017, was a faculty member for nearly 40 years and a longtime chair of the performing arts department.

Annie Bunker, dance instructor at UH Hilo and Hawai‘i CC, performs the Ice Queen and Prince Duet with her son Wrenn Bunker-Koesters. Bunker also choreographed two aerial dance sequences and a modern dance piece featuring dance students from Hawai‘i CC.

UH Hilo dance instructor Staton choreographed the “Waltz of the Flowers.”

Sara Hayashi, a UH Hilo alumna and graduate student in the master of arts in teaching program, choreographed and dances the ‘I‘iwi Bird Sequence. “I tried to get a lot of movement that is light and up in the air,” explains Hayashi, who also dances in the “Waltz of the Flowers.”

Norman Arancon, an associate professor of horticulture and chair of the Department of Performing Arts at UH Hilo, will dance Morgan’s original role, the Spirit of Transformation, which is the counterpart of the Drosselmeyer role from the traditional Nutcracker. “We handpicked him because he has such a great stage presence,” says Staton.

Micah Polloi, Norman Arancon, and Lydia Kamakaʻeha, in costume, with arms raised high. Norman wear dramatic sash and cape.
At dress rehearsal, (from left) Micah Polloi as the young David Kalākaua, Norman Arancon as The Spirit of Transformation, and Tyler Dela Cruz as Lydia Kamakaʻeha, the future Queen Liliʻuokalani. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

Arancon is a ubiquitous performer in UH Hilo theater productions in roles ranging from drama to comedy and dance. He says his role in The Nutcracker presents two artistic challenges. “The challenges are telling a story with the beauty of a ballet dancer, and filling the role originally performed by Earnest, who was a beloved instructor,” he says. “When people hear Earnest’s name, they say ‘Oh! He is a god of dance.’ It is an honor to be chosen for the role and I hope to do it justice.”


The UH Hilo Department of Performing Arts presents The Hawaiian Nutcracker Nov. 21-24 at the university’s Performing Arts Center. Times are 7:00 p.m. on Nov. 21, 22 and 23, and 2:00 p.m. matinees on Nov. 23 and 24. Tickets are reserved seating and priced at $20 General, $15 Discount and $10 UH Hilo/Hawaiʻi CC students (with a valid student ID) and children, up to age 17, pre-sale. Tickets at the door are $5 more. Tickets can be purchased by calling the UH Hilo Box Office at 932-7490 or ordering online.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo. 

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