Elements of nature dazzle in 'Akasha'
By Carol Egan
Special to The Advertiser
Iona Contemporary Dance Theatre's latest creation, "Akasha," brings the elements of earth, air, fire and water to the Hawai'i Theatre stage this week. It presents a universal theme combining mythology and our connection to nature, promising to provide a fantastic evening of thought-provoking and captivating entertainment.
Iona is known for its theatricality and stunning costumes, designed by founder/director Cheryl Flaherty. Company veteran Summer Partlon calls Flaherty "a genius, a one-woman show."
Flaherty has created elaborate designs for "Akasha's" sea critters — a shocking pink body suit for a Starfish, multiple legs for an Octopus and an umbrella-carrying Jellyfish, to name a few.
The show came together in sections. Aerial sequences were rehearsed at the private ArtZone in Nu'uanu. The new sea section was assembled at the YWCA on Richards Street in the Capitol District. And dancers worked through the fire section at Leeward Community College.
The dancers' concentration is focused on the work and each other, troupe members say.
"Iona has created lifelong friends. It's totally like a family," says Jamie Nakama. Watching Nakama rehearse her role as a Starfish, complete with cartwheels and capoeira moves, one is surprised to hear she spends her days teaching anthropology at Kapi'olani Community College.
Meanwhile, Partlon embodies the role of Octopus, alternately undulating and wriggling in place, then slithering rapidly to a new spot on stage. Her transformation bears witness to the kind of magic Flaherty's productions offer.
Other denizens of the ocean that will surely delight audiences are a playful and darting clown fish, a stalking lion fish, a prancing and preening seahorse, and a jellyfish buoyantly rising and falling as it moves through space.
The section closes with a rousing rendition of the B-52s classic "Rock Lobster" led by Ryan Sueoka and his lobster chorus.
Dancers are quick to praise Flaherty's ability to uncover individual skills. "It seems like Cheryl's getting more collaborative, letting us develop some of our own material," Nakama says. "Whereas the emphasis in the beginning was on butoh, now much more modern dance, aerial work and capoeira is included."
Aerial work has become one of the company's trademarks.
Liz Grote is one of several angels in the aerial section. Despite the discomfort of rope burns, Grote ascends the 18-foot-high rope gracefully, pausing midway to spin slowly in arabesque or attitude.
Later, watching Grote rehearse a sensual, slow-motion Mermaid duet, one would hardly suspect that she spends her days working as a sociologist.
Grote's partner, Dan Baram, is a relative newcomer to Iona. While waiting to rehearse the Sea Dragon, a role he performs on stilts, he explains, "I'm a mental health therapist with my own clinic. I also have my own punk-rock group, Monkeypods."
Whether climbing ropes, walking on stilts or performing a duet with a Mermaid, the whole process delights him. "I just turned 40 and I'm so happy to be doing this," Baram says with a grin. According to his colleagues, he has taken to it like a fish — or rather a Sea Dragon — to water.