Can Hula and Modern Dance be Mixed?

Christopher Morgan on “Pōhaku”

News Writer and Photographer Valentina Martinez

"… it’s not just about Hawaiians, it’s about otherness, everybody feels otherness, everybody feels at one point or another separated from their home…" – Christopher K. Morgan

To mix a culturally traditional dance with modern elements is a challenging field that many artists dare not explore. One local challenger, however, decided to take the plunge. After years of working with a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and hula teacher, Morgan wanted to make sure that his transitioning from hula to contemporary dance, or vice versa, was not offensive. His name is Christopher K. Morgan: “part Hawaiian, part foreigner,” as he says on stage. Morgan recently performed his play “Pōhaku” at UH Hilo’s Performing Arts Center, and opened up to attendees on what drove him to combine these old and new art forms.

Morgan, who now owns his own studio, had felt a deep calling to go back to his Hawaiian roots after he became more experienced with choreography. He claims that he had learned hula and other Polynesian dances as a young child from imitating his older siblings. In training for this, his muscle memory - was ever present throughout his modern dance - fully came to the forefront.

Morgan described what inspired to take the dare of mixing modern dance into hula:

“As a modern dancer and choreographer I started to notice my interest in storytelling which is directly the hula and the mele [chant] - you can’t separate them. And also a lot of times I was written about as a dancer for having this watery quality and all of these things that somehow felt like they were blossoming from that origin of dance forms that I did as a child created my curiosity,” he told his audience.

Fast forward to present day, and Morgan is performing “Pōhaku,” traveling nationwide to perform for a wide range of audiences, including the Big Island. Interestingly, he decided to center the play around his personal life: stories and memories growing up in southern California as part-Hawaiian, always feeling “otherness” both in California and even with his parents’ families on O‘ahu and Moloka‘i.

Pohaku performance photo

During his performance at UH Hilo, Morgan broke the fourth wall in theatrics and spoke directly to the audience throughout the entirety of his play. He was accompanied by Wytold, a six string electric cellist, along with Elsie Kaleihulukea Ryder, a traditional Hawaiian chant and percussion performer from Moloka‘i. From the beginning of the play, Morgan built a small ahu (altar) of rocks with the help of the front audience passing them along to him, chanting “he paepae pōhaku,” a rough translation of ‘foundation on which you build upon.’ Morgan’s reason for doing this chant with the audience was, “As I realized that we’d be going into different communities who may not know about Hawaiian people it felt important to do a practice with them that gave them that spirit of aloha right away in a very tangible way.”

Morgan began by telling his parents’ stories of leaving Hawai’i to join the U.S. Marines and meeting in Southern California, where they started a family. From his parents’ stories he built upon significant memories up to a prophetic dream on Moloka’i that inspired him to pursue hula with modern dance as his own storytelling way of showing his mixed roots and emotions. “As a part Hawaiian part foreigner to the islands I always felt like there was one part of me that had taken away the most precious thing from the other part - home,” he told the audience. After final thoughts such as this he would proceed to do a fitting dance, in this case, a blend of hula and modern dance to reflect his inner conflicting thoughts.

Due to the play’s tour schedule, a lot of people on the mainland are not even aware of the hardships the Hawaiian culture has had to face. Towards the middle of the play, he began discussing historic elements - mostly the overthrowing of Queen Lili’uokalani and her song “Aloha ‘Oe.” Instead of a dance for this segment, he imitated what was done to Hawaiian protesters during this historic period. “I have to tell you something. I was born with stones [clicks stones he is holding] in my mouth. The date of my birth, August 12, is the anniversary of when the Hawaiian people lost [drops stones one by one] their eight islands [drops rest]. The story goes that on August 12, 1898, soldiers overpowered the Hawaiian protesters by order of the wealthy landowners who orchestrated the illegal overthrow of our last queen.” At this part, Morgan fell to the ground and slowly crawled in agony as he muttered Aloha ‘Oe. “Using the butts of their rifles. The soldiers forced the protesters to the ground and made them eat stones.” He picked up a stone in his mouth and continued to sob and sing Aloha ‘Oe, then stood up and spat the rock. ”I’ve been chewing on these same stones my entire life, waiting to spit them out and tell this story.”

During another scene, he explained a prophetic dream, “I have to tell you about the dream I had because I think you sent it to me. I dreamed I was walking up this grassy hill. I could feel the breeze on my skin and taste the salt of the sea. When I reached the summit I knew I was supposed to lay down on my stomach. As I laid there, all these people I could not see started to place stones on my back [he slowly placed small stones on his back]. ‘Are the stones heavy [he impersonates one of the people]?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘But you can still breathe right?’ [continues to place stones] ‘Yes.’ ‘Good. It’s good you can still breathe. It means you can carry the weight. This is a good dream. I’m going to tell you what it means. All those people you could not see, they’re your ancestors and people you have not yet met on your journey. Those pōhaku they were placing on your back, that is their knowledge, your responsibility is to carry those forward.’” Morgan slowly got from the ground to hands and knees and crawled over to the small altar and placed them there, then transitioned into a hula dance.

Among several dances - some strictly hula, some strictly modern, and others mixed - Morgan’s inner emotions become quite apparent through his movements and facial expressions, as this subject hits close to home. After the show concluded, Morgan and his crew sat at the front of the stage for a Q&A session. From projecting his personal family photos and mixing them with historical ones, and using an electric cellist for some of his dances, the entire group explained that the mixing of two cultures was not an easy process. But, as they agreed, they all grew and learned together.

When asked why he took it from such a personal perspective, Morgan’s feelings were clear:

“I think if an artist can do it carefully, thoughtfully, skillfully, you can take a personal story and people can see themselves in it and it has a universal application. As this started to evolve, I realized it’s not just about Hawaiians - it’s about otherness, everybody feels otherness, everybody feels at one point or another separated from their home or that they don’t have a home or that who they are doesn’t fit in where they are or that thing was taken away from them. I think those splits are very human and very sacred so I think I wanted to lean into the specifics of a story to reflect the larger.”

For more information and pictures on Pōhaku, visit: christopherkmorgan.com.