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By Renée Tillotson

Has someone you know ever taken your breath away?  It’s an awesome experience.  

So often, we get comfortable with someone close to us. We come to expect their habits, their little idiosyncrasies, their normal, everyday way of moving through the world.

And then suddenly – as if by divine intervention or an act of self-definition – they do something that shows us we never actually knew their true potential, their gift, their grandeur to begin with. 

That “breath-taking” experience just happened to me last weekend when I stepped into the performance of “Oh My Goddess” by IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre at the Hawai’i Convention Center.

As I wrote to you in our last Life at the Center letter [link], my dear friend Sarah Hodges was preparing to dance the role of Pele, the volcano goddess of Hawai’i, for IONA.  I heard her initial struggles about taking on the immense responsibility of playing the part of a traditional Hawaiian goddess. I heard about the hours, days, weeks, indeed year of preparation time she had put into the performance, whether in the costume design shop or on the dance floor.

I have known Sarah from Still & Moving Center since before she began dancing with IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre 6-7 years ago. I’ve danced with her myself, I’ve directed her as the princess Sita in our Diwali enactment of the Ramayana epic, and I’ve watched her practice and perform with IONA in Still & Moving’s Barefoot Ballroom.

Sarah has lived twenty feet away in our guesthouse and we’ve worked together many hours a week. We have shared birthdays, gone Christmas tree hunting together, told each other about our previous night’s dreams, and cried and laughed together over life’s events.

Yet none of these instances of “knowing” Sarah prepared me for the experience of watching her dance Pele.

Perhaps I can best describe it as seeing the goddess Pele come to life in front of our eyes. 

Pele stood alone on one of four reflective dance floors in a cavernous room, each dance floor occupied by one Hawaiian goddess, the others being Hi’iaka, goddess of regeneration, Namaka, goddess of the ocean, and Poli’ahu, goddess of the snowy mountain. As we the audience entered this performance space, we chose which dance floor and goddess we wanted to watch.

I naturally walked to Pele’s realm and placed myself directly in front of her for full impact.

As Pele, Sarah is attired in the most dramatic costume I’ve ever seen. Her hooped volcano skirt descends from her waist with flowing, quivering rivers of lava cascading down and out to a 12-foot (4-meter) diameter of rippling fabric, in molten hues of black, red, orange, and golden yellow. 

Pele bears at her heart an egg-shaped jewel suggestive of the egg that her sister goddess Hi’iaka emerges from. The swirls of silver-grey fabric enveloping her shoulders evoke images of thunderous eruptions at the top of the volcano. Her silvery lei po (head lei) reminds me of a light-reflecting crown of clouds at the mountaintop.

At the onset, Pele seems to be motionless, yet not with the steely, unblinking, military freeze of a Buckingham Palace guard. From the Butoh meditative dance method that IONA performers are trained in, Sarah holds a vibrant, pregnant stillness – indeed, like a quiet volcano waiting to erupt.

As striking as the Pele costume is, it is the face that draws me in. The beautiful face that I know as Sarah’s has become Pele’s, with sparkling ruby lips of fire and high cheekbones that seem to be finely chiseled, living stone. Most arresting is her firm gaze from those clear, darkly-lashed eyes. 

As the music begins, I watch Pele emerge into life, starting with the oh-so-expressive hands, moving down the mountain in a slow, mesmerizing breakup of stone into a molten state. As the poetry and storytelling of the Goddess Pele rolls over the soundscape, Pele’s volcano skirt starts to heave and fall, as if spilling out lava.

With the sound of Hawaiian oli – chanting – Pele’s form sets into motion, smoothly gliding across the floor as if there are no human legs beneath Pele’s volcano skirt, but only the molten lava spreading this direction and that across the land. [See a Video Clip]

Beside me, an evident Pele devotee is in a reverential pose of supplication before the living goddess.

The entire Pele scene is so mesmerizing, I have to drag myself away from her mirrored dance floor to take in the other three goddesses. Pele’s sister goddess Hi’iaka – in her Spring foliage top and extensive grass hula skirt – is interacting with my staff members among the audience surrounding her floor. Hi’iaka raises her flowered branches of regeneration, symbolizing the persistent return of life after Pele floods the ‘aina (land) with lava. 

On another mirrored floor, I watch the snowy mountain goddess Poli’ahu – with her spiked, icy crown – regally twirl in her reflective mountain gown and stately blue and white feathered cape, reminiscent of the raiment of ancient Hawaiian ali’i (royalty).  Small circular lenses stud her silvery gown.

The ocean goddess Namaka, enwrapped in a shimmering aqua sheathe, sprouts numinous, petal-like tentacles that gracefully splay out, slowly turning, rising and falling as if in response to the ocean’s currents. I feel as if I’m witnessing a delightfully elegant, refined anemone in the Little Mermaid’s magical, living sea.

So much beauty and grace!

Yet Madame Pele’s pull irresistibly draws me back into her magnificent presence, holding me spellbound until the fading lights and music bring this amazing adventure to a close.

Wow. I’m left close to speechless. That is, anything I have to say dwarfs the experience I’ve just gone through. When I get home and show my photos and video clips to my husband Cliff, even he is amazed: “I’ve never seen a performer transform themselves into a force of nature like that.”

The day after the three IONA performances wrap up, Sarah – my Sarah in her casual clothes and quiet ways – comes to the house to work together, as usual. While she fills her water jug, I check in with her. She says that she’s assimilating the experience she’s just gone through. 

I learn that she as the performer of the goddess Pele has had a parallel experience to that which I had as an audience member.

Sarah spent her time as Pele largely as the observer, watching it all unfold. As she explains, “Butoh, a meditative dance training, asks us to empty ourselves of our self. That is, our everyday self.”

That was my experience of Sarah – she simply got out of the way and allowed Pele in all her powerful glory – to come through.  In fact, Sarah tells me, her hanai mom whom she lived with during her senior year in high school came to watch the third show. When Sarah messaged her to ask what she thought of the show, her hanai mom messaged back: “Oh! I brought a lei for you, but since I didn’t see you there I just went home after the show.” 

Whoa. Sarah REALLY got out of her everyday self if her own auntie didn’t recognize her.

For Sarah, performing the part of Pele was like riding on the currents of a flow-state experience. “When I got home that first night, my physical body was exhausted and I was still sick from whatever virus I had all week. But some other energy in me was so charged, I couldn’t sleep for hours.” 

She adds, “The energy that was flowing through me felt very pure. I felt very privileged to hold space for that energy coming through.”

Our staff who attended the Oh My Goddess performance with me talked with Sarah at our recent staff meeting. Sharonne Gracia comments, “I planted myself directly in front of you when we walked in. Watching you was scary and beautiful and powerful.” 

Doris Morisaki adds, “You had an amazing costume, but it was what you DID with the costume that astounded me.”

I ask Sarah a technical question that I’d been musing on: “What did you do with your legs and feet to glide so smoothly along the floor? I haven’t been able to figure that out. It was as if you were rolling on castor wheels under that huge skirt.”

Sarah replies, “I have no idea. Once I put on the costume, it became an extension of my body. I couldn’t separate myself from the costume. I didn’t feel as if I had legs. In Butoh we take the approach of “following” whatever it is that we are focusing on. I saw the lava, fire, earth, in my mind and I followed it. There’s always a through-line. We’re trained in fluidity, never to drop the thread. It’s a state of mind, of thought, of breath.”

Our kumu hula – herself a veteran performer who has danced solo on the Merrie Monarch Festival stage – asks Sarah: “Was there a difference between dancing without and with an audience?”

“It was completely different,” answers Sarah. “Quantum physics says we cannot observe a thing

without affecting it. All the energies of the people who came to watch the show were brought into my performance.”

“And what about your little toe that you broke just before your last performance?” I ask. “Well,” muses Sarah, “it did hurt before the show, but pain is just sensation. Once I entered the part, I didn’t feel it.”

Sarah sums up her Pele experience for us:

“When something gives us a task that makes us reach above 100 percent,  if we really go for it we can step into a higher level of our craft. It was a gift to be asked to perform that part. I felt honored to share the energy of this goddess and to share something that can remind us of our human strength, which we don’t always get to express to its full capacity. We are all potent, powerful beings.”

No wonder she took my breath away!

Renée Tillotson

Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!

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