Keo Woolford Returns to His Roots
Flynn dance review
April 11, 2008
By Tarin Chaplin Arts Correspondent
Flynn Dance

Signifying both noun and verb, the "I LAND" title of the one-man show at The Flynn Center's FlynnSpace last April 4 reminded me of the continuing urge these days to stand up for our identity, ancestors, traditions, origins. Hopefully every person who does so will increase their respect for others who do the same. We (or the generations we have come from) have all at some time been shunned, harassed, penalized, made fun of, or far worse - because of who we are, what we look like, where we come from, what we wear, the nature of our beliefs. Keo Woolford gives us a window on the world of being Hawaiian: It's about as far away from being in Vermont and still being in America as we can get.

Afterwards I asked if, how, or why the idiom had been adjusted or changed for the show. It was an absurd question, since the real answer lies in the knowledge of a lifetime and the history of an island people moving out into a global world. As a white American, my comments below lack such knowledge but are offered with respect …

The only stage dressing is an oval white patch on the otherwise black floor, perhaps a refuge of safety in a sea of darkness. Woolford brings a retinue of skills to that island - acting that ranges from youthful naiveté to L.A. cool, vocals that run the gamut from traditional chants to street jive to Italian opera, dancing that flicks between smooth hula and sharply executed hip hop, old-to-new and new-to-old and back again, all parts of his erratic life's journey to wholeness, all spread before us with unflinching honesty.

He retreats to boyhood, shoulders drawn in, palms clasped between his thighs, looking up in awe at Hula God, the man who became his first "kumu hula." He stands up and powerfully impersonates the captivatingly smooth "ka'o" (basic hula motion, a side-to-side, infinity figure that his teacher's hips circumscribe); then he shows us little Keo trying to do the same, rehearsing tirelessly. He shares the timidity of his first French kiss ("her tongue in; mine stay or push back?"); shows the tough teen exterior of "kill haole day" (haole being the common term for Caucasian) when he punched an Irish guy in the face, then watched him crumble, and inside, crumbled himself; reveals the longing for acceptance that led him to a black congregation of born-again Baptists, and to departing when he realized he needed to praise Pela (god of fire), not Jesus.

We watch him choking down his first stiff drink, tripping on acid, sniffing a long line of cocaine. We meet his friend, dropout Bruja, who resurfaces later in his life and helps set him straight. "Who are your real parents?" he's taunted, but his adopted ones are the only parents he's ever known, loved, the only real parents he has.

He becomes both the interviewer at California Institute of the Arts and the interviewee as he tries with all his being to give her the classic repertory she requires. But she's after Mozart arias, classical ballet, and Western classicism, not hula chants and dances, howsoever classic they may be in that culture (after all, Hollywood Hawaiian is all she knows and that's kitsch, not classical). Nimbly he fills the stage with the people in his life as he crouches to be this one, stands to be that one, swaggers to be another - in a series of situations that challenge him to either be who he is or to remake himself in the image of America's "melting pot" other.

But Woolford is traveling back, back to his own origins; he takes off his layered T-shirts, revealing a finely toned and muscular chest. He transfers into uprocking (a hip hop dance form) unceremoniously, hitting moves with the precision of a pro.

He bounces around the emotional scale, careening from burlesque comedy to deep reverence to bearing the butt of insults. We've all, at some time or other, been there. We can identify with the desperate desire to fit in, the knowledge of our real identity, and the awakening to the truth that the color of our skin, texture of our hair, or shape of our eyes, nose, or lips belie. Pulling at his shiny black hair he tells us, "My hair is bamboo shoots"; pointing to his eyes he reminds us, "My eyes are Chinese or Japanese - they all look the same, don't they"; he strokes his nose saying, "My nose is Caucasian, pert and pointy"; "My neck is African, thick, and my skin, Indian silk, (but) my hands," he says, rippling them fluidly out, "are the Hawaiian waves of the Pacific Ocean."

Together these represent "his "ancestry, teacher, genealogy, some of what (he is) from the beginning of time." Genetics are "the amount of genes that (determine) entitlement to certain rights if you have the qualified amount … (or) a way to demonize race if you have less." In what's become a familiar story of colonialism, missionaries banned "pagan" Hawaiian language and practices in the 1800s. Speaking for many he says, "You taught me to disrespect and disregard who I am, where I came from," but while much traditional history and culture was massacred, Keo Woolford is involved in rebuilding it today.

At the show's climax, this modern man sheds his modern jeans and dons a yellow "kapa" or bark-cloth skirt, puts on wristlets, anklets, and headdress, and honors the spirits he has invoked and the sacredness of the space he has created by dancing a complete male "hula kahiko" (which by tradition must be choreographed by one's teacher), thus representing his hulae (school) and ancestors. The wave-like motion of his hips move like the ocean breath- up-out-down-under, up-out-down-under; his arms reach like flat paired paddles to a far horizon only he can see; the palms of his feet leave imprints on sands we cannot feel.

"If we lived in Hawaii nation, we would still sing and people would pray after cutting down a tree, if we lived in Hawaii nation, no one would go hungry, no one would be on a diet, big women would be on the cover of all the magazines, if we lived in Hawaii nation, sex would be celebrated, man wouldn't be embarrassed to wear skirts, every child would have parents, and bombing of villages would be XXX-rated, if we lived in Hawaii nation."

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