Documentary shows importance of hula as art

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May), Albion College screened the documentary Holo Mai Pele or Pele Travels, which tells the story of an ancient Hawaiian myth.

The event was sponsored by Intercultural Affairs, the Fritz Shurmur Center for Teacher Development, Office of the Chaplain and the Education Department. Host and Assistant Director of Global Diversity Erika Buckley chose the film.

“We like to make sure we have a wide range of cultural expressions for the month. This one was cross-cultural, and interfaith, sharing some one else’s creation story,” she said.

On Thursday, April 17, Albion students and residents met in Norris Auditorium to watch the film. When Holo Mai Pele was first broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances in 2001, the group Pacific Islanders in Communications called it “the most visible treatment of hula to appear in the national media.” The program had never chosen anything from the Pacific before.

In Holo Mai Pele, director Catherine Tatge combines an informative and artistic approach to tell the Hawaiian saga of the volcano goddess Pele and her younger sister Hi‘iaka.

Pele sends Hi‘iaka to retrieve her beloved prince Lohi’au. Before she leaves, Hi‘iaka is granted the gift of hula and requests that Pele care for her precious ‘ohi’a lehua trees. On her perilous journey, Hi‘iaka faces physical and spiritual demons, battling an enormous reptile and even the lustful temptation of Lohi’au.

Though each encounter strengthens Hi‘iaka, she eventually dreams of making love to Lohi’au and is overcome with desire. This dangerous attraction is discovered by Pele, who lashes out in a jealous rage.

Pele burns Hi‘iaka’s ‘ohi’a lehua grove, harming everything her sister treasured. This profound betrayal sparks Hi‘iaka’s retaliation, and she channels all her strength into Pele’s defeat. The gods intervene, for destroying Pele means eradicating the creator of land. A truce is reached in which Hi‘iaka achieves the same godlike status as her sister.

The sisters’ struggle continues to play out today through nature’s destruction and rebirth. Lava flows destroy everything in their path, but later serve as fertile beds for ‘ohi’a lehua seedlings.

This epic was a three-hour, five-act drama when it premiered on Maui in 1995. Sisters Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele and Nalani Kanaka‘ole are both creators of Holo Mai Pele and instructors at the Hawaiian classical dance studio Haulau o Kekuhi.

“Our whole purpose was to take hula up to a different level,” Kanaka‘ole Kanahele told Pacific Islanders in Communications.

The creators wanted to show audiences how hula is not only a form of entertainment, but a very spiritual art.

“We’d like to show the public hula from a different place – hula that’s very serious and deeply connected to many generations of history and nature,” Kanaka‘ole Kanahele said.

Though director Tatge had to condense the three-hour, five-act drama into just one hour for the film, she did so while maintaining the performance’s essence.

Though Holo Mai Pele’s material is based on ancient myth and artistic expression, its presentation is contemporary.

The film presents Hawaii’s historic art form in a highly authentic manner, translating only some chants.

“We didn’t translate everything precisely because the experience is so strong and the work speaks for itself,” Tatge said on

Lopaka Kanahele, a dancer in Holo Mai Pele, was struck by the performance’s great impact. While watching a promotional video for the “Great Performances” series, Kanahele saw his dance alongside Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music.

“Oh, wow, when I saw her, I just went ‘Wow, I know who she is. Our halau is going to be up there with her.’ It was awesome,” Kanahele said In a 2000 article for the Star-Bulletin.

If students are interested in watching the film, it is available in the Albion College Library.

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About Emma Planet 18 Articles
Emma is a first-year at Albion College from Sterling Heights, Michigan. She is pursuing a double-major in English and Environmental Studies as well as a pre-law concentration. She uses her writing to raise awareness about environmental issues and adores pretzels paired with junior mints. Add her on Twitter: @PlanetEmma29

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