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Hula special only a glance at dance

A documentary that studies California's practice of the distinctly Hawaiian art could use more hip moving, less hand-wringing.

August 05, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

There is a wonderful documentary to be done about hula dancing, that sexy, feminine, macho, ancient, modern, thoroughly captivating and expressive form of dance that celebrates the culture and land of Hawaii.

Alas, tonight's "P.O.V." installment, "American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii," is not it.

Filmmakers Lisette Marie Flanary and Evann Siebens have followed three hula teachers in California as they instruct Hawaiian transplants and curious mainlanders. The thesis is that hula is undergoing a renaissance as part of a resurgence in

Hawaiian nationalism and an upswell of homesickness among Hawaiians who can no longer afford to live in their homeland.

Hula, "American Aloha" seems to argue, is the glue that helps Hawaiians retain their island identity even while living on the mainland.

Maybe so, maybe not, and even if so, is that interesting or unique? Ask any Californian who has attended an Oktoberfest, Tet celebration or dragon boat festival -- immigrants from everywhere add their art forms, holidays and festivals to the cultural supermarket that is the Golden State.

Curiously, "American Aloha" flops where it should soar: in showing hula. Only snippets of dances are shown and often in what seem like home movies. More hula and less tired hand-wringing about how Hawaiian culture was roughed by the arrival of Europeans and Americans would have helped.

Sissy Kaio of Carson runs her hula school as an extended family; Mark Hoomalu of Oakland is a hula rebel adding new rhythms and themes; and Patrick Makuakane of San Francisco is the most traditional yet the most political in using hula to bemoan the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Sharper editing and maybe some comments by hula experts might have helped clarify the distinctions between the three. "American Aloha" never provides much of a definition of hula and how it differs if at all from other chest-pounding, hip-swaying forms of Polynesian dance.

"American Aloha" (KCET, 10 p.m.) wants to sway us from the kitschy notion that hula is all grass skirts and coconut brassieres. Fair enough, but hula deserves to be in better hands.

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