An Offering of Dance
Willow Chang’s love of all forms of dance has inspired her to produce a dance concert - Puja, the Sanskrit term for offering - Saturday and Sunday. Best known for her belly dancing
By Alice Keesing
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From ballet to belly dancing, from the Argentine tango to Chinese qi gong, there are feet and bodies and minds all over this island keeping beat to a vibrant culture of old dance traditions and new fusions. Local artist Willow Chang and her company, Passport Productions, bring this rich tapestry together on one stage for this weekend’s dance showcase, PUJA:An Offering in Dance.
This world journey in movement and music is a groundbreaking new way of pulling together the Islands’ rich cultural diversity. “I’m excited to think that people will be able to see types of dance that maybe they’ve never seen before,” Chang says. “It’s almost like having the remote control and you’re channel surfing. I think that’s the fun thing about it.”
An internationally recognized belly dancer - and a very accomplished singer, dancer and model to boot -Chang’s inspiration for the concert comes from the festivals she has attended around the world as she has traveled to study, perform and teach. Being the multicultural melting pot that it is, Hawaii has all the pieces to create its own vibrant festival of international dance, Chang says. For several years, she has dreamed of what a great venue it would be for residents and visitors alike. This year, she decided that the only way to make it happen was to do it herself.
“I could sit and wait and it might happen - or it might not,” Chang says. “So I got off my okole, stuck my neck out, and said, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ “
The concert’s name, PUJA, is the Sanskrit word meaning “offering.” Chang, who is something of an armchair anthropologist, hopes the event will tap into roots that run deeper than the pace that our Wikipedia-American-Idol-fast-blogging lives usually allow. In addition to offering the beauty of the dance, this is also an offering of thanks to our cultural traditions and to the kumu who have come before, she says.
Ultimately, she hopes the concert will grow into an annual weeklong festival including dance and cultural workshops.
This first concert pulls together more than 20 different dance styles from nearly 50 performers. The special guest artist is Colleena Shakti, founder of the Shakti School of Dance in India. She will perform the Odissi - one of the classical Indian dances - and the Khalbelia gypsy dance.
The latter is a folk dance of the nomadic gypsies from northern India.
“Colleena has actually lived with them, and she has studied with them and learned their folk dance so, short of actually going there, it’s really hard to see these kinds of dances in Hawaii,” Chang says.
The audience also will witness Orisha dances from Brazil, Okinawan dance, Sufi-inspired dance, modern dance, Swasthya yoga, contemporary Middle Eastern, African dance and Balinese dance.
The program will provide information and contacts for those who would like to learn more about the various dance forms. And the artists will be available to meet with the audience after both shows.
“We live in a society where there’s the cult of personality and there’s hero and celebrity worship,” Chang says.“Those things serve their purposes, but sometimes you want to cut through that riff-raff and you just want to talk to people and relate to them on a down-to-earth level.”
Chang herself will perform her Egyptian-style belly dance, a form that she has been studying for 14 years.
Chang grew up immersed in Hawaii’s diversity. With her parents she explored the sounds, flavors and colors of the Japanese bon dances, Greek festivals and native Indian pow wows. She attended the Chinese Mun Lun school before attending Punahou, from which she graduated in 1990.
Performing has always been a part of her make up. At age 15 she was a regular at the Rocky Horror Picture Show on the UH-Manoa campus - jumping up at every screening to perform the part of Columbia, along with all the pelting rice, water guns and flying hot dogs.
Chang has been studying voice since she was 13 years old and has performed everything from funk to big band. Her bell-like voice can often be heard around town, and for the last five years she’s been with the exotic retro show The Forbidden World of Don Tiki, where she gets to show off both her song and dance talents.
Her dance career started with hula, and she performed in kumu Alicia Smith’s hula halau for nearly 10 years. She’s tried Tahitian, flamenco, Balinese, samba, tap ... you name it. But it was in 1994, while performing in a hula show in Egypt, that Chang got bitten - hard - by the belly dancing bug.
“Although, I have to say that the seeds were planted long ago,” Chang says, laughing.“I was one of those kids who loved Paint it Black by the Rolling Stones and that sound of the bouzouki. And I loved the dream women on Star Trek,the Martians that looked like belly dancers.”
Returning to Hawaii from Egypt, Chang began studying with Glo Ayson, who will also perform in PUJA. Chang has amassed a deep knowledge of belly dance - to the extent of learning some Arabic - and the music and the artistry never fail to move her. It’s that kind of magic that she expects will bring the concert alive this weekend.
“When you go to a dance concert, it’s like you throw a rock in a still pond,” she says. “You never know what’s going to come to the surface, and that’s the beauty of dance. Magical things can happen.”
Willow Chang and Passport Productions present PUJA: An Offering in Dance, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Paliku Theatre. General admission tickets are available pre-sale for $25 or at the door for $30. There is a $5-off discount for students and seniors. For information, go to www.willowchang.com or call 292-0820.
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