Pacific Odysseys

Classic Arts Features   Pacific Odysseys
Dancers and musicians from the Pacific Rim gather at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in August.

Onward, voyagers! This summer, audiences at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival can explore the fabled South Seas without stirring from the folding chairs arrayed in Lincoln Center Plaza and Damrosch Park. With a special focus on performing arts of the Pacific Rim, the festival, held August 10 through 30, is poised to satisfy New Yorkers' wanderlust.

Best of all, thanks to philanthropic supporters like Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman, it's free. You don't even need a ticket. Just plop yourself down, and let some of the world's most exciting entertainers come to you.

Among the highlights of this festival within a festival will be Hawaiian hula dancers, rock musicians from Japan and Indonesia, drummers from Taiwan, Chinese opera divas, Maori warriors from New Zealand, and Afro-Latin crooners from South America's Pacific coast.

Associate Director of Programming Jenneth Webster scoured the Pacific looking for talent. With help from New York's Asia Society and the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, she has assembled a stunning array of variety acts.

"It's a huge cultural crossroad, the Pacific Basin," says Webster, herself a former rim-dweller from Washington State. "It represents cultural evolution and immigration 40,000 years old. The people who settled the Pacific Rim crossed over land bridges, paddled across oceans, and brought their cultures from one island to another island, from one continent to another. There are 17 of those traditions represented in Lincoln Center Out of Doors this year."

Some of the work displayed will be traditional like the colorful fan and drum dances of Sounds of Korea, which appears at 6 p.m., August 22, and the war dances and love songs of the tattooed Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre of New Zealand, at 6 p.m., August 25.

More often, however, Webster says the attractions are artists whose work represents the evolution of cultural traditions. "We discovered, looking at all the groups, that their feet were in the cultural traditions but their heads were in the future," she explains.

This progressive attitude explains the presence in the festival of rock 'n' roll artists from Indonesia and Japan. "These bands are playing traditional instruments and using traditional tunings," Webster says, "But they are modern in the music they're playing, and they're using modern instruments as well."

Among the stars will be Hiromitsu Agatsuma, whom Webster describes as a Japanese Eric Clapton. Agatsuma plays the three-stringed, Japanese shamisen, an instrument with a hard, bright banjo-like sound. "Electric shamisen is a craze right now in Japan," says Webster, "and Agatsuma is a great, classical musician who moved into rock music. He plays with tremendous speed and intensity." Backing up his amplified sound will be percussion, keyboard, synthesizer, and electric guitar. The program "Agatsuma: Shamisen Sensation" takes place at 6 p.m., August 27.

At the head of the second rock group, the Krakatau Ensemble, from Jakarta, director Dwiki Dharmawan has adapted his keyboard to the microtonal tuning of the classic, gamelan orchestra. Percussionists with gamelan pots and synthesizers will join in the mélange of styles. The Krakatau Ensemble performs at 5:30 p.m., August 19.

Stretching tradition in a different way will be the 40-strong hula company Na Lei Hulu i Ka Wekiu, a name that translates as, "The many, feathered wreaths at the summit, held in high esteem." Hawaiian dancer Patrick Makuakane founded Na Lei Hulu in 1985 in San Francisco. This company of both female and male dancers performs a mix of traditional hulas with a new style that Makuakane invented and calls hula mua.

In ancient times, hula dancers helped preserve the history and legends of the Hawaiian people. The dances illustrated the long, narrative chants that they accompanied, matching gestures to the words. In contrast, Makuakane's hula mua illustrates the lyrics of popular songs. "We do everything from Dead Can Dance and Tony Bennett to Roberta Flack and progressive house music," he says.

Makuakane hastens to add, however, that, unlike the hulas depicted in Hollywood fantasies, the vocabulary and style of his dances are authentic.

Among the pieces that Na Lei Hulu will perform at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, at 8 p.m., August 15, are the modern Firemen's Hula, featuring real-life San Francisco firefighters in uniform; and the ancient Manu, which describes the work of the bird-catchers in the service of Hawaii's former kings.

"This is a dance the men do," Makuakane says, speaking of Manu. "In the old times, they would use the feathers of different birds to decorate the helmets and capes of the chiefs. These bird-catchers were specialists, who would roam the forests. They would trap the birds by putting a sappy substance on the tree branches. They would pluck a few feathers from each bird, and then release them. It took almost a million feathers to make a cape‹a lifetime," he says.

Not all the groups participating in this year's Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival come from far away. Webster says she was encouraged by the number of artists living and working in New York City's multi-cultural mix, who have connections to the Pacific Rim.

These include Kinding Sindaw, a Filipino group that will perform the dance and music of the Maranao Sultanate at 5 p.m., August 15, and locally based East Indian dance students who will take part in "A Community of Creativity: A Garland for Saraswati," a tribute to the Hindu goddess of wisdom and creativity, at 5:30 p.m., August 11. And Japanese koto player Masayo Ishigure and shakuhachi flute master James Nyoraku Schlefer will play a mix of traditional and contemporary music, at 6 p.m., August 15, with their New York-based duo Ensemble East.

"It's very carefully organized so that everything complements something else," Webster says of the festival. "If you experience the entire festival, the exposure to many, many art forms will be tremendous."

Robert Johnson is an arts writer who specializes in dance.

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