On Nov. 3 and 4, Doris Duke Theatre will honor ‘Iolani Luahine—one of the most legendary hula dancers of the 20th century—and the 40th year of her passing by screening the newly digitized Hula Hoʻolauleʻa, Traditional Dances of Hawaiʻi  (dir. Francis Haar, 1961) and ‘Iolani Luahine, Hawaiian Dancer (dir. Tip Davis, 1976) . Called ‘Iolani Luahine on Film, these screenings are part of the milestone exhibition Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era

In fact, Luahine’s great aunt, Keahi Luahine, was a royal dancer from the 19th-century court of King Kalākaua. 

Five years ago, the museum partnered with Hula Preservation Society to start the digitization project of Hula Hoʻolauleʻa with the goal of honoring Luahine‘s legacy as the foremost practitioner of kahiko hula. To learn more about the significance of this event and how it transpired, HoMA spoke to Maile Loo, Executive Director of the Hula Preservation Society.

How would you describe the Hula Preservation Society’s mission? 

HPS is committed to preserving and sharing the unique spirits, authentic voices, and historical record of our esteemed hula elders via digital technologies, and making that treasury available to the Hawaiian people, hula practitioners, and students around the world.

How did you get involved with the Hula Preservation Society? What do you do there?

Auntie Nona Beamer and I founded HPS as a nonprofit in 2000. We began documenting conversations with her peers—elders born in the early 20th century. They talked story about their lives in hula, their teachers, their communities back then, and all the many changes they’d witnessed and experienced in their many decades of life. This oral history work formed the foundation of HPS. Now 18 years later, we have a physical archive filled with not only the interviews HPS conducted, but with associated materials contributed by those same elders that when combined, provide a historical record of life in the 20th century for people who were involved with hula and music as a vocation and/or way of life.

Why was it so important to digitize Hula Hoʻolauleʻa, Traditional Dances of Hawaiʻi (Haar, 1961)

One person whose name regularly came up in these conversations with elders in the early 2000s was ʻIolani Luahine.  She had passed many years prior, so we decided to look into what moving images existed on her, if anything. Our thinking was perhaps to try and encourage the holders of these materials to digitally preserve them so they were not lost to time. And if not on their priorities list, then allow HPS to take the lead. We were delighted to learn of both Hula Hoʻolauleʻa, Traditional Dances of Hawaiʻi (Haar, 1961) and ʻIolani Luahine, Hawaiian Dancer (Davis, 1978).  These were the only pieces on hula shot on film in the 20th century—and both featured the remarkable ʻIolani Luahine.

The partnership between Hula Preservation Society and the Honolulu Museum of Art to digitize the work was a five-year process. Can you share what that process entailed?

We actually first approached the museum in 2007 about digital preservation of the film. Nothing transpired at that time. We asked again in 2013, and Director Stephan Jost moved on it. Tom Haar, son of the filmmaker Francis Haar, secured financial support through professor Morris Lai to digitize this earliest film. HPS set about to raise grant monies to develop a package of resources focused on Auntie ʻIo, and grant cycles can take several years from application to completion. The efforts were successful, and now the two films are presented in conjunction with oral history clips from HPS. Combined, they shed light on Auntie ʻIo as a dancer, person, teacher, mentor, and friend.  Through another digital preservation project with BYU-Hawaii, we learned of additional moving images of Auntie ʻIo from shortly before her passing – a performance at the Polynesian Cultural Centerʻs Hawaiian Village with her niece and chanter, Hoakalei Kamauu. The final set of materials digitally released in 2018 include: Haar’s film, Davis’ film, PCC performance segments, and 10 edited oral history clips.

How would you describe ʻIolani Luahine’s legacy to those who are not familiar with her?

Born in 1915 and reared in hula under her grand aunt, Keahi Luahine, a court dancer in the Hawaiian Kingdom, ‘Iolani Luahine reflected a direct link to our shared past through her solid grounding, extraordinary hula, and incomparable spirit. The 1970s decade of the Hawaiian Renaissance held a renewed commitment to the ways of old and to ancient hula as a cultural practice to be revered. Auntie ‘Io, who passed away in 1978, was regarded as the 20th century’s foremost exponent of ancient hula.  A truly formidable Hawaiian woman whose presence was not easily forgotten. We hope her hula will inspire and her spirit will be celebrated for generations to come.

Image © Hula Preservation Society