In an intimate hall, or on an earth-stage, the small-scale expertise of the Halau Hula Ka No'eau might register with greater impact than it did in cavernous Marsee Auditorium at El Camino College on Saturday. Performing its three-part "Huliau: A Hawaiian Dance Concert," this 14-year-old ensemble from Waimea on the Big Island shared the myths, legends and lore of a deep and complex traditional culture, but in a style so intent on avoiding the excesses of commercial/tourist hula that the result frequently seemed remote, static and even devitalized.
Remaining far upstage, in such dim light that the dancers' feet were often lost in shadows, the nine-woman company and leader Michael Pili Pang proved most impressive in songs and chants. For example, the rich choral harmonies alone made "Halemano" memorable, with such unusual instruments as long mouth-bows and small knee-drums adding their own distinctive sonorities.
Gourds, drums, bunches of sticks and small rocks used like castanets provided additional accompaniment Saturday, but most of the pieces depended on the rhythmic pulse of stamping, clapping and the human voice.
Each piece had a complicated tale to retell, especially "Hi'iaka," which invoked the volcano goddess Pele. However, the spoken and printed synopses supplied a narrative overview rather than the kind of performance-oriented breakdown that might have helped the audience know exactly what sequence it was watching.
Moreover, theatrical expression extended no further than color-washes on the backdrop, leaving "Huliau" essentially a ceremonial experience compared to the more dramatic and dynamic Halau O Kekuhi production of "Kamehameha" at the Japan America Theatre and UCLA last year.
In "Paiea," Pang mounted his own tribute to Kamehameha, emphasizing powerful hip rotations and gestural delicacy in the dancing as well as fugal structures in the group vocalism.