Keo Woolford - I Land

What I know for sure, having met Keo (kay-oh) Woolford, is that such a look as this can only come from one who's touched the dark side and returned. He knows what he knows because wisdom and faith are a result of a journey through self-destruction and rebirth.

Billed in Helena, Montana as Hula Meets Hip-Hop, I had no interest in attending this venue. After all, I'd seen the Hula when on vacation in Hawaii and the Hip-Hop...well, that's not my generation's dance of choice. However, when good friend Beverly Fox, the Myrna Loy Theatre's Residency Director, called and said, "You MUST see this," I said, "Okay!" (I've learned the sad way what happens when I don't listen to Beverly Fox.)

As Residency Director, Beverly escorts Artist-In Residence guests to and from public and private schools, local theatres and dance companies. Within hours, maybe minutes, a bond forms between Fox and the artist. Her observations in the studios and classrooms fuels a profound appreciation for each artist's unique gift as it's shared with students in Helena and surrounding communities. During Keo's week in Helena, Beverly checked in nearly every day with observations of an "absolute focus between students and Keo." At a dance studio, she explained how he patiently worked with accomplished dancers bit by bit until they got the whole piece beautifully. The children at Helena's Shodair Hospital were no less important to him. "He met them on such a deep level, accepted who they are and what they needed," Fox said, adding, "with everyone, he looks each one in the eye and never wavers in his attention." In Linda Piccolo's Jefferson High drama class, Woolford extracted monologues from the students by having them imagine they were listening to somebody they admired tell them how great they are. "He knew how to get the students out of their mindset and into the body."

As Woolford and co-creator, Roberta Uno, write in the accompanying program, "From the beginning, we didn't want I Land to be a tourist guide to hula nor to claim there is one Hawaiian identity. We wanted to reach beneath the surface, without completely revealing the kaona, the multiple, hidden, or deeper meanings underneath."

And yet, it is the multiplicity and deeper meaning that at times wrung such a silence in the Myrna audience that it felt we held our breath in unison. Neither on the exhale nor the inhale did we want to miss the subtlety of a creation story that tells another way of being in the world. As Keo relates life experiences interspersed with hula and hip-hop, he dances in and out of the "zone" - a white circle on the stage. He stumbles into it by chance and out of it by default - side effects, perhaps, of growing up in an outdated and mechanized cog-in-wheel paradigm where individuality is sacrificed for artificial sameness and insanity.

Every move, every expression of this glistening body exudes meaning. Imagery and words fire the imagination as they appear on the only other stage prop...a giant wave towering over the zone. Eventually - and because evolution requires it - Keo's forays into illusion and reality bring him back to his roots. He knows the zone is his connection and that the alter of his being is within. When he finishes dancing his truth, the Myrna audience is on its feet paying tribute.

The group that hangs around afterward to meet the award-winning actor/writer/dancer/teacher is as respectful as is the artist. He meets each of us with integrity and honest attention, interest and gratitude. His hand shakes and hugs are authentic.

I wish...I wish...I wish I could see this performance again and again and again. I wish it were available on DVD. I wish Keo and company were based in Helena and people from around the world would come here to learn the power of excavating for one's truth and how there is nothing so powerful as the story...

For now, however, I'm thankful for how rich I've suddenly become for meeting not only Keo but K.R. Munson, Production Stage Manager and Dave Shelley, Production Manager. I love that they loved Helena. Who knows, maybe if we all intend it, they'll all return!

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