Water Dance

The latest production from Cheryl Flaharty and the IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre is visual, sensual, ecological and spiritual — for starters

Wednesday - April 04, 2007
By Alice Keesing
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Raymond Silos
Raymond Silos

Take a plunge into the IONAsphere this weekend. When IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre dance meister Cheryl Flaharty takes her audiences into her theatrical world, they are entering a rarified atmosphere of brilliant visions and pearly truths. And with Electric Blue, Flaharty has gone all green - as in environmental. Her eco-arts epic, which will show at the Hawaii Theatre Center this weekend, touches on everything from global warming to the corporate control of water.

Electric Blue has all the hallmarks of an IONA performance, from the east-meets-west fusion to the visual explosions to the intellectual message. These are the elements that have made IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre one of Hawaii’s premier dance companies since Flaharty founded it 17 years ago.

Flaharty has a very down-to-earth sort of spirituality, and her creations have a very organic way of growing. Her inspiration for Electric Blue came - rather oddly - from her Dodge PT Cruiser. When Flaharty bought the new car four years ago the paint color was a bright electric blue.

“I just knew that the next show was called Electric Blue,” she says, then lets go one of her frequent, contagious laughs, “All I say to that is that God works in mysterious ways and God has a sense of humor.”

Once she had her title, Flaharty began pulling on different threads that flowed into a universal water theme.

“The ocean became a metaphor for the life force,” she says. “We were born into water and into water we go, such is the custom here in Hawaii to bring the ashes to the ocean.

“I started reading books about water and what’s happening on the planet with water, and it’s pretty darn serious,” she says.

Flaharty delved into issues of water control; how humans are diverting water and creating havoc in the environment; how some cultures are forced to buy their water from profit-making corporations. She explored global warming and our fixation with bottled water and the Scottish myth of the sea-creature selkies. All put together, the work takes audiences from the glowing cosmos to the deep ocean floor where life itself literally glows.

In 2005, IONA started performing a segment of the budding Electric Blue show at beaches around the island. Given the show’s environmental message, it was more than ironic when the final performance at Kailua Beach had to be canceled because of the sewage spills that came with last year’s remarkable spring floods.

“We were having the dress rehearsal and the dancers were out there and the ocean was brown and ... the dancers are on their hands and knees for an hour picking debris out of the sand and getting sprayed from the ocean spray, which we all knew was polluted,” Flaharty recalls. “And finally we stopped after an hour and said, ‘We can’t do this.’ “

IONA dancers rehearse a scene that includes bouncing on a bed.
IONA dancers rehearse a scene that includes
bouncing on a bed.

As much as the situation reduced Flaharty to tears, she says it also gave the dancers an edge when they took the show to the Hawaii Theatre last year because the importance of their message had come so close to home.

The show restages this weekend before heading for a five-show California tour. The multimedia performance piece includes backdrops of ethereal underwater footage, acrobatics, witty monologues, eight dancers in one bed ... not to mention eight tons of sand.

The sand itself has quite a story. Hawaii sand is coral-based, so it is very dusty. So when IONA first staged Electric Blue, it had to ship in the sand from the Mainland. It arrived, 56 bags per week for almost a year until there was 10 tons of it; enough to turn the theatre’s stage into a giant sandpit where the dancers wield it into fluid ribbons of light and a metaphor for time.

Flaharty laughingly admits that, yes, theatre managers do appear to cringe when they see IONA coming. This time it’s eight tons of sand they want to throw around. In Worshipping Sun, it was six quarts of sticky golden honey. There have been performances that were all about splattering paint.

No question, IONA performances are visually brilliant. Gregg Lizenbery, who chairs the theatre and dance department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, calls Flaharty a “master of detail.”

“Cheryl is very painterly,” he says. “Every inch of the stage is considered and that’s really quite an amazing feat. There are very, very few people who pay that much attention to all the details.”

Chances are, you will respond to Flaharty’s pieces on a deeper level, too. She always has a message to impart. Sometimes the messages are obvious. Sometimes she and her dancers communicate things about life that are impossible to put into words.

“One of my missions as an artist is to create images on stage that remind us of an archetype that we hold deep within our psyche,” Flaharty explains. “And it

sort of wakes that archetype up and therefore we have a reaction. And sometimes as an audience

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