- Hā: Breath of Life
Coming from the US continent, I have encountered firsthand many inaccurate conceptions about Polynesia. I remember numerous individuals who confused hula with Tahitian dancing or thought that Māori poi was a Hawaiian dance form. I found that few people were aware of the existence of hula kahiko or realized that hula can have sacred and esoteric dimensions. And male dancers? Forget it. A friend’s sister, when she heard I was a student of hula, asked me a bit hesitantly, “But do the guys really dance? I thought they just stand in the back and spin that fire knife . . .” What surprised me more than these ill-informed comments and inaccurate perceptions was that they frequently came from people who had visited and vacationed in Hawai‘i! They were basing their (mis)information on direct, personal experiences—the kind of experiences most tourists to Hawai‘i will have. So when I saw Hā: Breath of Life, the latest nighttime production at the Polynesian Cultural Center (pcc), I could not help but be critical. As I glanced around the stadium during the performance, I could only envision the majority of the audience returning to their homes filled with the same kinds of misconceptions that I knew all too well.
Although located on the opposite side of O‘ahu from Waikīkī, the pcc in Lā‘ie remains one of the most visited tourist destinations in Hawai‘i, offering a mix of entertainment and cultural education. Students from around the Pacific who attend Brigham Young University–Hawai‘i can earn scholarships by working, for instance, in the pcc “villages” of Hawai‘i, Tahiti, Sāmoa, Fiji, Tonga, and Aotearoa. To conclude a day spent strolling over shallow waterways from village to village—symbolically traversing Polynesia—tourists are encouraged to attend the “night show,” a large-scale production of song and dance that brings the six cultures together in a grand finale. Hā: Breath of Life is the first of the pcc’s many night shows to interweave all of the cultures into a single narrative, and made its debut on 14 August 2009, after $3 million and three years of production time (Mormon Times, 18 Nov 2009). Hā depicts the life story of Mana, a muscular and youthful Polynesian, tracing his own birth, his marriage to the beautiful Lani, the death of his father, and finally, the birth of his son. Each significant life event takes place in one of the six Island groups represented at the pcc.
Hā: Breath of Life certainly has its strengths. Like previous night shows, it successfully engages the audience with surround-sound and compelling visuals including waterworks with colorful lights and lots of fire. A new special effect, both impressive and innovative, is the narrated petroglyph animation projected onto large fabric sheets (vaguely reminiscent of tapa) used to facilitate transitions from one culture to the next. But, without a doubt, the dance sequences are the highlight of the show. One can see, [End Page 492] even feel, the joy expressed by the performers as they sing and dance the stories of the different Islands.
The trouble with Hā, I found, is unfortunately the aspect that is also most celebrated and marketed: the plot. The use of a rudimentary plotline designed to have universal appeal by telling “every man’s story” (http://www.habreathoflife.com/media-room/press-kit.html) leaves no room for cultural complexity. Whether intentional or not, embedded in the series of events that dramatize Mana’s life are stereotypes that reify representations of Polynesia, and, in turn, of the Pacific as a whole.
This begins in Tonga, where Mana is born. His shipwrecked, non-Tongan parents are immediately assisted by Tongans in the delivery of Mana, followed by song and dance to celebrate his birth. Such a hospitable reception is a fitting introduction to invite the audience—also strangers to another land—along on this journey through Polynesia. Furthermore, locating the warm reception in Tonga reinforces...