Island-born Dancer plays Pele
for IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre
By Renée Tillotson
Sarah Hodges first stepped into the floor length, flowing black hoop skirt of her Pele costume back in 2021. She immediately felt the grand, regal nature of the goddess Pele. As she explored movement within the vast expanse of the skirt, she sensed the energy rippling through the hoops’ concentric circles, setting the 6-foot-diameter hem into motion. Thrilling! A dancing goddess in the making!
Here’s the video clip they made as Sarah danced in the Pele skirt on the back patio of IONA’s costume shop. [Scroll down to where it says ‘watch the making of a goddess.’]
Sarah was at ground level of IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre’s newest show, Oh My Goddess! (Ola Koʻu Akua Wahine!), which premieres September 29, 2023. IONA intends with this piece to honor four of the Hawaiian goddesses while educating less familiar attendees on aspects of Hawai’i’s rich mythology.
A long time student, performer (as Sita in our 2016 Ramayana enactment), staffer, writer, and lomilomi therapist at Still & Moving Center, Sarah was born and raised on O’ahu. Almost goddess-like herself in her many gifts and talents, Sarah is trained as a classical painter, equestrian, violinist, photographer, a multi-lingual speaker of Italian, Spanish, and an exquisite dancer of many styles.
Tellingingly, Sarah’s first dance class was preschool hula when she was four years old. “I still have vivid memories of this class. I loved the teacher, her big smile and warmth. I remember that she would have us ‘ami around the island’ as we moved our waists in a circle. I still remember this funny image of an island at my center, which I would circle around.”
When the teacher moved off the island the next year, little Sarah was so sad to lose her teacher that she told her mom she wouldn’t take hula anymore. “I didn’t want a teacher that wasn’t her. My mom honored my wishes and it took over two decades after that before I stepped into another hula class.”
A year later she began a kids ballet class and continued with ballet through middle school, and off and on through highschool, adding contemporary dance and modern dance classes as well. She encountered salsa dance at the end of highschool, which ignited a passion. Moving to Philadelphia for art school, Sarah joined a Latin dance company and began performing salsa on the weekends in Atlantic City.
Back on island, Sarah began dancing with IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre in 2017. She was enchanted by the sheer artistry of IONA’s haute-couture-level costumes, their expressive, Butoh-influenced dancing, and their wildly imaginative shows performed across Hawai’i.
At the end of 2019, Sarah started helping out in IONA’s costume shop, where the genius of Director Cheryl Flaharty comes to life. One day as they worked together, Cheryl offered Sarah the part of goddess Pele in an upcoming show. “I was honored, understanding it was a huge role to take on. When I was younger somehow I ended up with the nickname Pele, maybe because of my dark flowing hair. I agreed to the part in the show that we expected to premiere in 2021.”
Like many performance companies, IONA’s performance plans came to a screeching halt went the pandemic took hold in 2020. The delay in the performance schedule, however, became a blessing in disguise. Cheryl Flaharty used the time to take her already extravagant costuming to new levels of the sublime in both design and execution. During the long course of the costume creation, Cheryl got the inspiration of Kilauea erupting multiple times, with Pele’s molten lava exploding upwards and flowing down the flanks of the volcano.
The four Hawaiian goddess costumes are sumptuous, from what Sarah tells me. Cheryl tends to keep her costumes underwraps until their grand unveiling on the stage. What Sarah is able to reveal to us is that much of the fabric used for the Pele costume comes from Italy and is of rare and high-quality craftsmanship. In addition to the black lava hoop skirt, Pele will don a rippling lava blouse and crown of fire! This I cannot WAIT to see.
When I ask Sarah what it’s like to play such larger-than-life characters for IONA, she tells me how putting on IONA’s gorgeous costumes is like donning an extension of her own body. They hold an other-worldly quality, that allows her as dancer to more easily shed the trappings of daily life, and to assume a grander character.
On many occasions, Sarah has spent an evening interacting and performing, in the improvised way that IONA dancers do, with enraptured individual audience members. After the performance, people walk right past Sarah in her street clothes, with no recognition of the dancer they had just been interacting with onstage. Hah!
This costume, in particular, exudes the flow and landscape-changing power that Pele wields. I think we will be pressed to recognize our gentle, quiet and unassuming Sarah in the magnificent Pele costume appearing for the first time in Oh My Goddess! (Ola Koʻu Akua Wahine!) at the Hawai’i Convention Center on September 29 – October 1, 2023.
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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)