2013 Hit List

by twinink on January 13, 2014

Honored to have our script “The Golden Record” voted #6 on the Hit  List of 2013’s best spec screenplays.

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THE GOLDEN RECORD by Aaron Kandell & Jordan Kandell
Inspired by the incredible true story of how Carl Sagan fell in love while leading the wildest mission in NASA history: a golden record to encapsulate the experience of life on earth for advanced extraterrestrial life.

GENRE
Romance | Drama

REPRESENTATION
Verve | Adam Levine, Rob Herting, Tanya Cohen
Hopscotch Pictures | Sukee Chew

STATUS
Hopscotch Pictures producing.
Sukee Chew producer.

BIOGRAPHY
Identical twins that graced the 2013 Young & Hungry List, the duo have projects set up at Paramount, Heyday, Warner Bros. and RKO.

2013 Young and Hungry List

by twinink on November 27, 2013

We were honored to be included on this year’s list of upcoming writers.

THE TOP 100 WRITERS ON THE VERGE!

Every year a new YOUNG AND HUNGRY LIST is compiled from across the industry, cultivating the top writers currently running with some heat, and landing on the most shortlists across town. The list focuses on the new voices and fresh blood hitting Hollywood and making names for themselves. All writers on these lists were voted on by some of the biggest film and television executives, producers, agents, managers, and directors. Some are much more established than others, but all of them are currently riding the buzz!

AARON KANDELL & JORDAN KANDELL

PROJECTS:
STRANDED | THE FAMILY TREE | UNTITLED WB PROJECT

REPRESENTATION:
Verve | Tanya Cohen, Rob Herting, Adam Levine
Hopscotch Pictures | Sukee Chew

NOTES:
Identical twins that currently have projects set up at Warner Brothers, Paramount & RKO.

 

Re-Enter The Dragon

by twinink on November 1, 2013

(This article appeared in the June-July 2014 Hana Hou Magazine)

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On a frigid February morning in Manhattan, with snow threatening citywide gridlock, Hawai‘i-born Cole Horibe arrives through the flurries—on time not just to the minute but to the second. He’s dressed like a futurisitic ninja out of The Matrix: black cross-stitched bullet jacket, black tunic, black pants. He even sports a vicious black eye. “During Saturday night’s performance I took a stray fist across the face,” Horibe cooly shrugs. “The fight choreography is pretty intense. We’re still working out the kinks.”

As the star of the new off-Broadway play Kung Fu, which charts the formative years of celebrated martial arts legend Bruce Lee, Horibe is used to rolling with the punches. “It’s not an easy role,” admits the play’s director, Leigh Silverman. “We’ve created a new dramatic form—the dance-ical—where you have to be able to dance, fight and have the acting chops to carry an audience for two hours, eight performances a week, not to mention convincingly personify Bruce Lee. Yet Cole miraculously embodies all those unique abilities.” In many ways “it’s like he was custom-tailored for this part,” says the play’s illustrious writer, David Henry Hwang, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and the Tony Award-winning dramatist of M. Butterfly, which established Hwang as the most famous Asian-American playwright in American theater. Horibe is hoping the part will propel him closer toward his own boyhood dream of becoming the most famous Asian-American actor since Lee. “Lee was the first to really break through those barriers of the stereotypical Asian male,” says Horibe. “Forty years later you’d think somebody would have further bridged that gap, but it hasn’t happened yet. I want to be that bridge.”


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That lofty goal might not be so far off. In 2012 Horibe exploded into the spotlight on season nine of the competitive reality show So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD). His theatrical flair, paired with an electrifying hybrid dance style that Horibe calls “martial arts fusion,” caught the attention of the judges and won the votes of a legion of fans. What set Horibe apart on the show, aside from a chameleon-like versatility, was his intensity. “My wife first saw Cole and was blown way by him,” recalls Hwang, who at the time was struggling to cast Kung Fu’s iconic lead. Watch any performance from the show, whether an emotional contemporary routine about addiction, hard-hitting hip-hop or a predatory paso doble—and it’s easy to understand why millions tuned in week after week to watch Horibe both piroutte and punch his way to become one of the top six finalists. When Horibe takes the stage, it’s not just dance; it’s combat. He moves like a coiled serpent, at once languid and lightning-fast, ready at any moment to strike and stick a pose. “What makes a star is truly an unquantifiable quality,” says Hwang. “Some people just radiate a kind of energy that makes an audience want to look at them. It’s a very specific talent you are either born with or not. Cole has that sparkle.”

As a shy boy growing up in Hawai‘i, far removed from the bright lights of Broadway, Horibe always knew that he wanted to be an actor. “My parents instilled in us that we could pursue our dreams,” says Horibe. “But I was a strange kid. I didn’t have friends.” According to his older brother Cale, “Cole was an early bloomer, always three steps ahead of everyone else. He planned his life from a young age, and every decision has been designed toward that end goal. He’s never veered from that path.” While this singular drive formed the bedrock of his adult success, it painted kid Cole as a precocious outlier. The bullying started early and lasted well into high school. “Kids would spit on him when he’d walk by, constantly try to pick fights,” claims Cale. Throughout elementary, “during recess and lunch I would go hide in the bathroom and cry,” says Horibe.

His father, a rough country boy from Kaua‘i who suffered bullies throughout his own adolescence, put his three kids into intensive martial arts. From the age of four, Horibe studied judo, aikido and taekwondo; later he added wushu. At ten he won silver at the Junior Olympics. At 18 he ranked second in the National Collegiate Championship. The final fights in both competitions were very close: down to the last point of the last kick. And both times Horibe lost because he refused to retreat. “The only time I will stop fighting, that I will ever back off, is if I realize I’m doing something for the wrong reason,” he says. Ironically, for five years between his championship matches, Horibe did just that: He abandoned martial arts when he realized his heart wasn’t invested in competition. “It felt like a distraction from my true passion,” he says. And so in his freshman year he convinced his parents to make the long commute from Honolulu to the Windward side, to a new school renowned for its performing arts program: Castle High. Here Horibe threw himself headfirst into musical theater, performing in numerous school productions and local community plays. Yet he remained the insulated introvert, more cerebral and sensitive than his gregarious fellow gleeks. Forced to the periphery, Horibe felt like the outsider looking in.

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Social redemption, or at least acceptance, finally arrived from an unlikely outlet: Cole’s older sister Cara took him under her wing and introduced him to the world of dance. Accomplished in her own right, Cara is a former University of Hawai‘i Rainbow Dancer who went on to compete in America’s Best Dance Crew and perform on tour with Janet Jackson and Nicki Minaj. Together the siblings enrolled in classes at 247 Danceforce, a Käne‘ohe-based performance studio that emphasizes storytelling and characters. Former SYTYCD finalists Mark Kanemura and Pono Aweau both graduated from this school. “I didn’t know dance could be like that,” Cole recalls. “It was like acting!”

For three years Horibe danced obsessively. “I stopped everything else,” he says. “Dance took over my life completely.” He found a niche, friends and a sense of confidence and depth that had been missing. But for a martial arts disciple, performance didn’t come as easily. “I never saw myself an an innately talented dancer,” Cole admits. “What I lack in ability I counterattack through discipline.” Everyone who talks about Cole mentions his grit. “He’s an ultra-perfectionist,” states Cara. “Everything he does is meticulous, practiced, precise.” Kung Fu director Silverman backs up this claim: “Cole is the most disciplined actor I’ve ever met,” she says. “A total machine,” agrees Sonya Tayeh, the play’s Emmy-nominated choreographer, who worked intensively with Horibe on SYTYCD. “We often feel like his two moms,” says Silverman. “We have to force him to go home and rest. Otherwise he’ll never stop training.”

When Bruce Lee famously stated that “the succesful warrior is the average man with laser-like focus” he could well have been describing Cole.Success never came easily for either man; the strength to endure a difficult path was forged, for both Horibe and Lee, as much through tribulation as triumph. By 22, Horibe admits, “I was still living at home. I had nothing going for me except this huge dream and zero momentum toward achieving it.” Five years before, he’d quit dancing to pursue acting nonstop. And while he’d starred in a couple of student films, his career was going nowhere. A black hole of depression set in that nearly ended late one night when Horibe took a knife from the kitchen and pressed it to his heart. “It wasn’t a cry for help,” Cole reflects. “I’m the type of person, when I say I’m going to do something, I do it.”

What brought Cole back from the brink was a timely phone call from his brother Cale, who that night posed a simple question that has become Cole’s mantra: “What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?” Horibe had a moment of realization that snapped him back on track. “I woke up the next morning and it was like a phoenix … whoosh,” he says, swooping his arms overhead. “I went straight to the studio to train.”

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Where most dancers peak in their twenties, Horibe started all over from scratch. He finished his degree at UH; worked long hours as a bookkeeper at Hairscapes, his dad’s salon; then spent all night practicing like a prizefighter. “I gave myself a finite amount of time,” says Horibe, “three years to get good.” His sweat equity paid off. Six months after recommiting himself to dance, Horibe entered Destination Groove: Dance Hawaii, a local version of SYTYCD. “I wasn’t even going to audition,” Cole laughs. He ended up winning the show.

Straight away, people began pressuring him to apply for the national competition. In 2011 he went as far as accompanying his cousin through the grueling season eight audition process, only for nerves to get the better of both. To excel on the show requires technical skill across diverse styles, so to prepare Horibe threw himself into every dance class he could, from contemporary to ballroom to ballet. “Other dancers would come out of a three-hour choreography and be at 90 percent. I would come out at 40 percent,” he says. Even when he won a top spot in season nine and headed to Los Angeles to compete, Horibe never stopped training. While the other contestants relaxed by the pool, he would rent a studio out of his own pocket and rehearse until late in the night, sleeping only two hours every day. “I was killing myself on that show.”

Horibe’s intense focus isolated him from the other dancers. Much as he had in elementary school, he found himself the odd man out. But by now he’d learned to embrace his individuality. Or as Bruce Lee famously taught: “Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add uniquely what is your own.” In Kung Fu, Horibe portrays a young Lee struggling, and perpetually failing, to carve a name in spite of his abundant talents. And while Horibe is hesitant to acknowledge any comparisons between himself and Lee, the parallels are undeniable. In a vicious street brawl scene—the one that earned him his black eye—Horibe lunges across the stage like an uncaged tiger, mauling a gang of teenage bullies. As the son of a famous Chinese-opera star and a young child actor himself, Lee was also a constant target of violence. To defend himself, at 13 Lee trained under legendary Wing Chun master Yip Man, becoming in a short time one of his top pupils. Lesser known is how Lee, at 18, won the Hong Kong cha-cha championships. “What you see in Bruce Lee is the ability to be flexible, even in the face of incredible adversity, to follow his dreams,” says David Henry Hwang. “The same is true in Cole.” Where Lee integrated the agility and grace of dance into a revolutionary style of fighting, Horibe incorporated the power and fluidity of kung fu into a unique form of dance. This mastery and cross-pollination of diverse passions has served to define and set both men apart.

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On the third night of previews for Kung Fu, Horibe dance-fights his way through an intense martial arts number. He pirouettes to avoid a rushing attacker, then roundhouse-kicks three more thugs in a breathtaking ballet. But it’s the next scene, devoid of dance spectacle, in which Horibe really shines, humanizing, through the subtlety of his acting, Bruce Lee the man.Horibe even perfectly captures the broken-English sing-song of Lee’s personal martial arts philosophy: “Only thing important: heart. You have the right heart, you arrive at the proper destination.”

The next day, outside the glare of the spotlight, Cole puts that same theme, which has guided his own journey, in his own words. “A lot of people experience a lot worse than I did, and that, more than anything, is why I feel it’s important to share my story,” he says. “Because you have a choice. We have the ability to create reality with our minds, for better or worse.”

All over New York this week, nearly everywhere you turn, Horibe is there. Billboards plaster the subway showing him shirtless in mid-aerial kick. His chiseled profile appears on the cover of Playbill and in the pages of The New York Times. Entertainment Weekly voted Horibe one of “fourteen rising stars to watch in 2014.” There is a buzz in the air, a rising tide of awareness that—not two years prior—Horibe dreamed of but never thought possible. “You grow the most when you’re given opportunities you don’t feel ready for,” he humbly confesses. “And I’m still very much growing.”

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The Fighter

by twinink on October 11, 2013

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2013 Hana Hou Magazine)

The third time his thumb popped out of its socket, the pain brought Chad Owens to his knees. But he gritted his teeth and popped the thumb right back in. Owens was only midway through the 2012 Canadian Football League’s regular season, and with eight more games ahead, he had a plan. For many football players, injuries are a one-way ticket to the bench. But nothing— not a dislocated thumb, not even torn ligaments in his left wrist — was going to stop Owens from achieving his goal: to become the greatest all-purpose yards receiver in the history of pro football.

At five feet eight inches and 180 pounds, 31-year-old Owens looks like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s younger brother. He’s fit, charismatic, as agile with his words as he is on the field. To watch him sprint with a ball is to watch a man defy laws of speed, physics, football. He possesses an almost preternatural ability to split the defense, to find holes and shake linebackers like he’s repelling pesky fleas. But despite these skills, success never came easy. “Growing up playing ball, I was good, but I was never the top guy,” Owens admits. As a result, he wasn’t actively recruited out of high school. He had to “walk on” to the University of Hawai‘i’s practice squad to prove himself worthy against the players who were already guaranteed positions. On the last day of freshman training camp, he was the last man added to the team.

Looking back, it seems impossible that Owens barely made the cut. Over his illustrious career as a UH Warrior on coach June Jones’ run-and-shoot offense, Owens became a college superstar. He shattered school records as a senior with 102 receptions and seventeen touchdowns. To this day he holds Hawai‘i’s record for career leader in all-purpose yards: 5,461 total over forty-four games. Nationally he earned second-team All-American honors, and he still shares the NCAA record for the most touchdowns scored on kick returns in a career. In 2004 he was the recipient of the Mosi Tatupu Award for special teams player of the year.

But more than his stats, Owens was entertaining to watch. Small and unbelievably fast, his collegiate acrobatics made him a local celebrity. When he walked down the beach, bikini-clad coeds recognized him. The ego of a 20-year-old could easily have touched the clouds, yet Owens kept his feet firmly rooted to the ground. He tells a story of when he was 12 years old, biking home from school. “I reached a fork in the road. Straight ahead led home. Left, to my best friend Blake’s house.” He turned left and met a girl named Rena. They ended up going to the same school. Playing truth or dare. Sharing their first kiss. They’ve been together ever since, and he credits her for his unwavering focus. While his teammates were doing upside-down keg-stands in the dorms, Owens was in a delivery room making the most important catch of his life: his firstborn son, Chad Jr. The next year, after graduation, he married Rena.

It was widely assumed post-college that Owens would be a first-round draft pick, a rookie shoo-in for the NFL. To his disappointment, he was drafted in the sixth round. It felt like being the last kid picked in elementary school, he says. “But hey, I’m in the NFL,” he recalls thinking, “I’m thankful for the opportunity.” After a lifetime of being underrated, he thought he’d finally proved himself worthy. He wouldn’t have guessed that the real gauntlet was about to be thrown.

Everyone’s heard the truism that “it’s hard to be a professional athlete,” but few are aware of the statistics that back up that phrase. Of the eighty thousand students who play college football every year, an average of 1,500 get scouted by professional teams. Of those, only 250 are selected during the official seven-round draft. That’s only one-third of one percent. Even then a player isn’t guaranteed a spot on his team’s active roster. There are current stars to compete with and undrafted free agents, all angling for one of only fifty-three positions per team. Make it through all that and you still might never play a single season game: The real golden tickets go to the lucky eleven who earn the starting line.

The moment Owens reached the NFL, everything spiraled down. He was no longer a hometown hero, a big fish. Instead, as one of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ last three draft picks, he suddenly found himself at the bottom of a giant pyramid. A nobody. A minnow. “In the NFL the opportunity is so slim,” says Owens, “you gotta be perfect every single day. Everything you do, you’re under a microscope. A lot of guys pressure out.”

There are many who would argue that that’s exactly what happened to Owens. In his NFL debut in 2006, Owens muffed three punts. And just like that, they benched him. Waived him to the practice squad. For the next two years he got traded around: from the Jaguars to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before finally trading out of the NFL altogether. “I was at the top,” Owens raises one hand high, then slams it down onto his thigh, “and I got knocked all the way down.”

He ended up in the short-lived, high-impact Arena Football League (AFL) because they paid room and board. At this point he’d just had his third child, Sierra, and there was real money to be made in the AFL. But the risks were bigger. Guys were hitting harder. It wasn’t long before Owens blew his anterior cruciate ligament, a potentially career-ending injury. He nearly quit then and there. “All I could ask myself was, ‘Why me?’ With a family I had a different pressure. It was all on me: ‘If I don’t achieve this, we’re gonna fall.’”

Today, looking back, Owens views his knee injury as a long-overdue wake-up call. “I let the NFL change me,” he acknowledges. “I was so focused on myself that I wasn’t thinking about my family. My middle daughter, Areana, her first three years … I can’t tell you much about what we did together. I’m heartbroken by that.”

Owens vowed to make it back, to rise from the ashes and play ball again. Only this time he sharpened his commitment. “Since that moment it’s been all about my family,” he says. Perched on the wave-washed rocks overlooking Kewalo Basin and Point Panic, he stares back toward Kaka‘ako Park and smiles as he watches his two daughters race each other across the park’s grassy hills. “They are involved in everything I do,” he says. Over the year following his injury, Owens spent the most stressful period of his life battling grueling pain in intensive rehab. Several times he came close to throwing in the towel, but his kids were always there to encourage him, his wife by his side to pick him up.

In 2009, when Owens finally got signed to the practice roster of the Montreal Alouettes in Canada, he didn’t care that he’d been traded to a different country at a reduced salary of only $500 a week; he was just happy to be back in a locker room. Like most Americans, Owens admits he knew almost nothing about Canadian football or its 130-year history. He had to quickly learn the variant rules: how a CFL field is more than ten yards longer and wider; how there are twelve players on the field instead of eleven; how offense gets only three downs instead of four. It took him the whole year to get his confidence back, but by that point he’d fallen way down the depth chart of the Alouettes’ more veteran bench. In a fourth-round draft, he was traded yet again to the then-floundering Toronto Argonauts.

“Once that year was done,” says Owens, “I wasn’t satisfied to just be in the building. It was time to finally launch.” At the opening of the 2010 CFL season, in his first game playing for the Argonauts, Owens ran a ninety-yard punt return, blowing past five defenders. It was his first major scoring run in more than five years. “Instantly a weight lifted off my shoulders that I’d been waiting to shake off since 2005. I had to go through so many obstacles to grow. And that moment …” Owens stops to gather his emotions. “I was almost in tears going back to the sidelines. From that moment the blessings just kept pouring out.”

Over the next three years, Owens’ explosive speed and balletic feet rocketed him to stardom. He became the only player in pro football history—not just in Canada, but in all of North America—to surpass three thousand all-purpose yards in three consecutive seasons. This past season alone, he led the CFL in receiving (ninety-four catches for 1,328 yards and six touchdowns), return yards (2,510) and all-purpose yards (3,863), surpassing the previous record held by his mentor, Michael “Pinball” Clemens. He is the third player in CFL history to hit a 100-100-100 game: recording 100 yards on six receptions, 111 yards on four kickoff returns and 105 yards on seven punt returns. And with an average 221 yards per game, he not only propelled his team to a Grey Cup victory (Canada’s equivalent of the Super Bowl), he was also named the league’s Most Outstanding Player.

“At the start of the season, I made a list of impossible goals to keep me motivated,” says Owens. “The fact that I was able to check off all those boxes, it’s a miracle. If I retired right now, I’d be …”— he can barely finds the words—“more than happy with my career. It’s a dream come true.” But more than anything else, “to think that my kids were right there, my family was on the field with me getting this award … this is the stuff they’ll remember forever.” Does he ever think of returning to the NFL? “Sometimes I wish I could go back to that moment, give it another shot,” he says of being in the league. “But there’s a danger to that mentality. I’ve changed my commitment. I’m only looking ahead.”

We all have two stories: the one we tell ourselves and the myth that gets told about us. When it comes to Chad Owens’ heroic rise, there’s a temptation to portray him as the patron saint of athletic perseverance. Canadian fans adore him for his underdog roots. In Toronto’s bars and newspapers, Owens’ stats are listed with a reverence reserved for Herculean feats. “It’s crazy. At home I’m just a local boy, but in Canada …” Owens shakes his head in disbelief. “You put in the hard work and this is the reward: A whole country knows your face.” Even at home in Hawai‘i, Governor Neil Abercrombie officially pronounced December 15, 2012, “Chad Owens Day.”

For Owens himself the story is much simpler. “The odds were against me from the day I was born. I was born a month and a half premature, weighed three pounds. I’ve been fighting since day one,” he says, pointing at the heart tattoo across his lower ribs and the four words inked there: faith, love, perseverance, family.

When he was home this spring, during the CFL’s off-season, Owens brought his fight to a new and quite literal level, incorporating mixed martial arts into his training routine. On April 6 he made his official debut in the ring, fighting at the Neal Blaisdell Arena under the nickname Mighty Mouse and winning a unanimous two-round bout against amateur welterweight Junyah Tevaga. To some the bout may have seemed like a bizarre departure from football, but for Owens it was just another notch on his battle belt. And the football field will always be his coliseum.

That same game Owens dislocated his thumb, he came back to catch four passes and nine kicks for 126 yards. The rest of the season he played with his hand in a cast, wrapped in tape and hidden beneath a glove. No one suspected he was injured, not that it would have mattered. Despite the pain, despite playing with only one good arm, Owens was unstoppable. He had a plan, the same one he’s always had: Never give up.

The Heroine’s Journey

by twinink on February 11, 2013

(This article appeared in the Feb-March 2013, Hana Hou Magazine)

The video—grainy black-and-white and recorded in 1942—is showing its age, but the movements of the dancer it depicts retain a grace undiminished by time. Lithe and strikingly beautiful, 26-year-old Jean Erdman raises a perfectly extended leg, toes pointed like a sharpened dagger. Her arms extend at precise geometric angles, evoking the two-dimensional paintings on a Grecian urn. Her fingers writhe: ten coiled, hissing snakes. As she dances through The Transformations of Medusa, her entire body contorts until, with a perfect, snarling pirouette, she transforms into something at once dynamic and explosive: the untamed Queen of the Gorgons, ready to devour any mortal man.

Seventy years later, sitting in her modest apartment nestled at the base of Diamond Head on O‘ahu’s Gold Coast, Jean Erdman looks far less fearsome. Her nails are painted coral red, and she wears a faint touch of lipstick—a detail one notices because of the frequency of her smile. Now 96 years old, Jean remains astonishingly spry. Despite the occasional memory lapses that have descended in recent years, her brown eyes glisten with a youthful joie de vivre that reflects a casual, almost childlike spirit. “The good thing is I don’t remember any of the bad things,” she laughs. “But the bad thing is I don’t always remember some of the good things, either.” What’s never left her, though, is her love of dance. “From the moment I could stand, I was dancing,” says Jean. “Growing up in Hawai‘i, it came to me as naturally as swimming. I don’t know why I do it; it’s just something that’s always been inside me.”

In a career that spanned five decades, Erdman earned herself a prominent place in the pantheon of American dance, performing in close collaboration with an impressive cross section of America’s most celebrated artists, including Merce Cunningham, Donald McKayle and Martha Graham. Scattered throughout her apartment hang framed accolades that reveal both the depth and effect of her legacy: Obie and Vernon Rice awards, a lifetime achievement award from the National Dance Association, even a Tony nomination. “She’s inarguably one of the pioneers of early modern dance,” says Bob Walter, president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, which Jean created to honor her late husband, the world-famous mythologist. “Most of the lions of contemporary dance today cut their teeth with Jean.”

Jean Erdman Campbell was born on O‘ahu on February 20, 1916, from the union of two influential kama‘aina families. Her father, John Erdman, was a local pastor, descendant of a long line of missionaries. Her mother, Marian, was a daughter of the Dillinghams, wealthy titans of Hawai‘i industry. Marian was an avid patron of Hawaiian music and art, and Jean, along with her three sisters, started learning hula at the age of four. While her sisters eventually stopped dancing, Jean never did. She continued on to study Isadora Duncan’s style of interpretative dance as a student at O‘ahu College (which later became Punahou School). In a class photo dated 1933, a teenage Jean in bobbed hair and cheerleader sweater poses on the football field. In another shot, Jean dances barefoot in the sand outside her family’s ranch on Mokulë‘ia beach, her arms outstretched as though ready to fly.

And fly she did, all the way to New York and Sarah Lawrence College, where she met the two greatest teachers of her life: Martha Graham, the “godmother of modern dance” whose influence on the art form has been likened to Picasso’s on painting; and Joseph Campbell, a handsome English professor whose work in mythology to this day inspires storytellers worldwide, from George Lucas to Bill Moyers. Jean learned technique and structure from Martha; from Joe, intuition and passion. In his teachings and writings, Joe stressed that “an individual has to find what electrifies and enlivens their own heart.” He called this “following your bliss,” which in Joe’s case meant Jean. Within a year of meeting the two were married, and they would remain so for nearly fifty years, until Joe’s passing in 1987.

When Jean talks about Joe, she touches the simple gold wedding band that he gave her seventy-five years ago. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she laughs as she tugs at the ring. “I can’t get it off.” Though much of her memory has faded, Joe’s imprint remains clearly visible throughout Jean’s apartment and life. One entire wall of their home is still dominated by his private library: a wall-length bookshelf filled with tomes on world mythology, arranged not by alphabet but by the geographic locations of the diverse cultures he studied. Photos of Joe hang everywhere: laughing at someone just out of frame; reclining on a beach with his arm around Jean. In every image of the two of them together, they are smiling. “We were fortunate to have found each other and followed what we loved,” Jean says as she pulls out their yellowed wedding photo from the long-gone Hawai‘i of 1938.

But the truth is, great love stories are never that simple. The day after her marriage to Campbell, Jean joined Martha Graham’s company as a principal dancer. Tensions flared almost immediately. “Ever since they taught together, Martha was interested in Joe,” recalls Walter. “All the girls were,” Jean remembers. “When my classmates found out I was marrying him, they put the flag at half mast!” Joe encouraged Jean’s individual expression, which only led to clashes with Martha. “Joe is the one who gave me the courage to really break away,” says Jean. And after six years under Graham’s strict tutelage, Jean did exactly that, becoming one of the first dancers in the troupe to do so. “You didn’t say no to Martha. Nobody dared cross her,” says Jean. The recrimination was nothing less than Shakespearian. “I didn’t think YOU would ever betray me,” Jean intones dramatically, eyes flashing as she impersonates her famous mentor. “It was an awful experience … but it also set me free.”

As a solo artist, Jean’s fame accelerated. In 1944 she launched her own dance company, collaborating with prominent American composers John Cage, Louis Horst and Henry Cowell. “Jean was one of the first dancers who learned to both speak and dance at the same time,” says Walter, whose wife worked with Jean at her Theater of the Open Eye. This blending of lyrical poetry with movement became a seminal feature of Erdman’s choreography, one that set her apart from the more traditional approach of her contemporaries. She was also one of the first dancers to actively incorporate improvisations into her performances, which, according to Jean, “was considered rather shocking … because at that time it was not considered acceptable to perform improvs in public. That was for the privacy of your studio.”

In 1945 the New York Herald Tribune reviewed Jean’s solo choreography, stating, “Her dance attracts through rare beauty of pattern … it does not appeal directly to the intellect nor to the emotions, but rather it seems to carry its message on its own short-wave system to the senses themselves.” Jean defined her maverick style in similar terms: “I was always interested in exploring ways in which the symbolic language of dance could explore the seemingly inexpressible. Joe and I talked about this a lot.”

It’s impossible to look at Jean’s dancing and not see the threads of Campbell’s ideology woven throughout. In Ophelia Jean poises in a white dress with red blood-lines painted down the side. Her neck elongates, back arched like a willow. Through each leg-lift and every twist, a complex web of emotions radiates outward: tragedy, pain, joy, madness. “My mind was filled with mythological imagery,” Jean recalls, “because Joe read everything he wrote to me out loud, to test the rhythms of his writing.” At the same time, “Jean would choreograph a dance,” remembers Walter, “and Joe would watch it and tease out the mythic themes.” Between them there was a symbiosis, a shared passion for the universal symbols inherent in all cultures. Many of Erdman’s most famous dances—captured in the three-volume retrospective Dance and Myth: The World of Jean Erdman—tackle Campbell’s famed “hero’s journey,” which conveys a cycle of adventure, triumph, destruction and return.

Jean’s own journeys took her far across the country and around the world. In the early 1950s she spent nearly five years on the road touring every state with both her dance company and, more frequently, on her own. “Oh, I drove all over the country by myself, dancing in one little town after the next,” she remembers. “I was very independent.” In 1954 she traveled to India, Indonesia and Japan as a solo artist, the first dancer to do so since World War II. Even though she couldn’t speak the languages, “she has a genuineness that instantly connects with people,” says Roger Epstein, a founding member of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. “There’s a fierce passion to go unafraid into new situations, but also a gentleness and a peace in her approach to life reflective of that aloha warmth of spirit.” While Jean was away, Joe also crisscrossed the globe as a speaker, slowly gaining international acclaim. Despite their jet-set schedules, the two made time to travel together, with Joe often accompanying Jean as her stage manager.

With so much constant movement, their decision not to raise a family was mutual. “Fortunately, Joe didn’t want any children because he thought it would take too much time and focus away from his work,” Jean recalls. “And I just wanted to dance.” That said, “She has a deep maternal instinct,” reflects Walter, who like many considers Jean a surrogate mother. “Although they didn’t have biological children, they adopted a lot of us informally over the years. They treated their students as family.” Erdman’s greatest legacy lives on through the thousands of dancers she influenced in her illustrious career as a teacher. Through the 1960s and ’70s she directed the modern dance departments at Columbia University, the University of Colorado and Bard College in upstate New York. She also founded New York University’s prestigious dance program, where she taught from 1966 to 1971 before launching her own private studio, which she shared with Joe.

As a teacher, Jean’s playful lightness shone through the more serious dancer. In a video clip from the time, she corrects a young student, instructing her to “Expand! There isn’t anyone like you—not even the mayor of Kaunakakai!” As a choreographer Erdman was unique, even revolutionary: Her body of work reveals an incredible diversity of influences, from the poetry of E.E. Cummings to the impressionist paintings of Paul Gauguin. She literally danced to the beat of her own drum, creating a style entirely her own and dance pieces that look as fresh and original today as they must have seemed when first performed more than sixty years ago.

Today, sitting in her vibrant green-and-cobalt mu‘umu‘u—which perfectly complements the aged palm tree growing straight up through the lanai behind her and the expansive sea beyond—Jean closes her eyes. Below, the steady song of ocean swells surges against a sea wall, and Erdman, ever the dancer, sways to its soothing rhythm. “I’m extremely grateful to the god of fortune that I’ve had the privilege of pursuing a creative life,” she reflects. “That’s the greatest gift given to me. And I hope that in the work I’ve done, I’ve been able to not only give people pleasure, but also to help them see deeper into their own experience. And I would like to go on doing it forever.”

 

Hide and Seek

by twinink on February 11, 2013

(This article appeared in the Feb-March 2013, Hana Hou Magazine)

(photos by Elyse Butler)

A moment ago the tunnel entrance was filled with sunshine and birdsong. But now, a quarter-mile in, the light from the cave’s mouth has narrowed to a pinprick. The only sound is the sloshing of unsteady feet as we push deeper into this secret irrigation flume. In the dark heart of the Ko‘olau mountains, my brother’s headlamp flickers off, then back on. “Of all the moments to die, it had to be now,” he mutters, slapping the only light we share between us. Arms linked, we stumble onward into the dark, seeking one of the most elaborate and adventursome geocaches in Hawai‘i: “The Holy Grail.”

“If you try to explain what geocaching is, you get a lot of funny looks,” warns Errol Hopkins, president of a successful insurance company by day, treasure hunter by night. He has met us in the shaded corner of a mall parking lot, safari hat tucked low, GPS held high. At first glance you would never guess that Errol—better known in the cache kingdom by his handle “Dadwrap”—is one of Hawai‘i’s pioneer geocachers, a man famous for creating some of the Islands’ most mind-expanding, puzzle-based “hides.” With his smudged bifocals and collapsible walking stick, he more resembles a high school history teacher than a weekend Indiana Jones. And yet Errol has found nearly all of the 1,200-plus caches in Hawai‘i to date.

Still the question remains: What is geocaching? And why when we ask does Errol’s face contort in comedic exasperation? To answer, we must rewind the clock.

It began at the stroke of midnight on May 2, 2000. President Bill Clinton issued a release encouraging the “acceptance and integration of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) into peaceful civil, commercial and scientific applications worldwide.” For nearly three decades prior, the government strictly controlled satellite tracking. Now, overnight, GPS technology was open to anybody. That morning David Ulmer, a computer consultant in Oregon, stashed a container in the woods behind his house to test the navigational accuracy of the new civilian devices. He uploaded the coordinates to an Internet newsgroup. Three days later his “cache”—which contained software, books, food, money, a slingshot and a logbook—was found and logged online twice. The sport of geocaching was born.

Today there are more than five million registered “cachers” searching for almost two million active caches hidden in every country and on every continent, including Antarctica, on Earth. There’s a cache at the top of Everest, another sunk seven thousand feet down at the Rainbow Thermal Vents off Portugal. There is even a cache on the International Space Station, though only astronauts and stratospherically wealthy space tourists will ever find it. That said, most geocaches are more accessible: hidden along hiking trails, in city parks or at scenic lookouts for any amateur archaeologist to uncover. Hawai‘i itself is a geocache hot spot, with one of the highest cache densities in the world, including famous ones like “Diamond Quest, ”a virtual multi-cache on the landmark Diamond Head lookout trail; “Pier Pressure,” a cleverly hidden Dadwrap cache near the Ala Moana Boat Harbor; “Kaniakapupu,” a hike to the ruins of King Kamehameha III’s summer cottage; “Saphira’s Teeth,” an educational “earthcache” on Maui featuring unique lava formations; and “GC23,” one of the oldest and most popular caches on O‘ahu. All you need to play “the game” is a GPS-enabled device (like a smartphone) and a sense of adventure.

The first cache Errol leads us to is a mere two-minute walk from our car. Hidden in the twisted roots of a giant banyan tree just off Manoa’s Woodlawn Drive, we find a tiny Tupperware box. Wedged inside are a whistle, a pink plastic hair-tie, glitter hand sanitizer and a metal dog tag. “Oh, you found a travel bug,” Errol explains as he shows us the unique tracking number stamped on the back of the tag: “These and ‘geocoins’ are special items that hitchhike from cache to cache.” He pulls a plastic moose from his pocket, sporting its own metal tag that, once found and logged online, will be hidden in a new locale: “I found this one in Canada. So far it’s been to over thirty countries.” Sensing our disappointment at the uninspiring swag, Errol chuckles. “My wife calls it ‘cache-trash.’ She thinks I’m crazy, wasting all this time hiking around looking for a McDonald’s toy.” In truth, the majority of geocaches hold plastic “prizes” worth less than a dollar. Only a rare few, mostly caches sponsored by corporations like Jeep or the film Planet of the Apes, hold anything of real value. And the die-hard cache community frowns on such promotional hides. “The value of the find isn’t the goal,” says Errol. “It’s the challenge, the search.”

“There are also significant real-world applications,” says University of Hawai‘i professor Paul Lawler (geotag “Plawler”), who incorporates geocaching into his Information Technology in Tourism course. “Geocaching combines technology, geography, sustainability, athleticism.” Lawler, who initially got into geocaching as a way to get in shape, embodies this application in action: “I’ve lost twenty pounds!” he boasts. For his course’s final project, Lawler divides his students into teams, each tasked with finding sixteen different caches. “The greatest benefit has been the teamwork caching encourages,” Lawler asserts. “I see many couples out hiking together and even more families,” says Errol, who loves taking his grandsons caching with him. “It’s a way to get out in nature, to get active, to bond. But above all, it takes you back to that rush you felt as a little kid, when everything still held mystery and wonder.”

Part of what makes geocaching so popular is its simplicity. There are only a few core rules: You may either plant a cache or hunt a cache; caches may not be placed within a quarter-mile of each other; caches should be placed only on public-access land, not private property; anything you remove from a cache must be replaced with something of equal or greater value. Following these guidelines, the number of caches has exploded in recent years. Just punch in your ZIP code to geocaching.com, the mother ship for all geocache enthusiasts, to view dozens of caches within a ten-mile radius of your front door.

The sheer variety and complexity of the hides can be overwhelming. Beyond regular caches and “trackers” like the one in the banyan tree, there are virtual caches, puzzles, multi-stage hides and “munzies”: a tech-hybrid involving photographing hidden QR codes. And the caches themselves come in all shapes and sizes, from nanos (miniature magnetic containers the size of a fingertip) to macro-scale containers. Many are camouflaged in plain sight. Errol takes us to one called “Finding Nemo,” where a fishing pole has been cleverly hidden inside a PVC pipe painted to match a neighboring telephone pole … and that’s just the tool you’ll need to uncover an even more ingeniously concealed cache.

“Try to be discreet,” Errol instructs as a passing fisherman eyes us suspiciously. People have been known to call the cops on geocachers. “One woman got interrogated for twenty minutes before the officer finally admitted he was a cacher himself, using geotag ‘Five-O,’” Errol chuckles. But it’s not always so innocuous. Numerous caches have been destroyed by bomb squads suspecting the contents might be dangerous. Then there are the other things geocachers stumble upon: “In the process of hunting, I’ve found a number of drug stashes,” Errol says. For this reason, geocachers try to maintain a low profile and steer clear of oblivious pedestrians. “We call them ‘Muggles,’” Paul Lawler explains. “Like in the Harry Potter books, part of the thrill is belonging to a hidden world just beyond normal view.”

That hidden world can often be so carefully constructed that it takes people months, even years to navigate. Errol describes a multi-day hunt in San Francisco that covers hundreds of miles and requires cachers to solve complicated riddles written in invisible ink. Another requires learning crochet to knit a pattern, which once completed reveals coordinates. “Personally I try to design my caches so that you go through a journey,” says Errol, who in a few short hours takes us zigzagging across town to some of the fifty caches he’s placed on the island: the grave site of the real-life detective who inspired Charlie Chan, the headstone of a Titanic survivor who lived in Hawai‘i, a scenic, secluded beach. “My favorite finds are the ones that give you that ‘Eureka!’ moment,” Errol acknowledges. “For me that’s what geocaching is all about: finding places you never knew existed and learning in the process.”

On a Waimanalo back road misted with rain, we meet Dadwrap along with a ragtag group of veteran cachers (who self-deprecatingly call themselves the “Knights of the Round” in honor of their general portliness). In the back of Errol’s truck driving toward the Ko‘olau, you wouldn’t at first glance take us for anything other than everyday hikers. But we’re here on a sacred quest: the search for “The Holy Grail.”

As we start up an overgrown public trail into the jungle, all echoes of civilization quickly fade. For a time it’s easy to get lost in the fantasy … until the loud chime of our GPS snaps us back. Up ahead, a waypoint: the mouth of the irrigation flume. Plawler leans inside the dank entrance, his hand coming away covered in cobwebs. “Why did it have to be spiders?” he groans, half mock-Indy, half genuinely unnerved. We shuffle single-file into a darkness punctuated only by the sporadic glitter of minerals embedded in the TNT-blasted stone. “I’ve lived here all my life, and what amazes me is that I’m still discovering new things,” whispers “Queenbee,” the sole female cacher in the group. “That said, I would never do this by myself.” For “Honupohaku,” an international relief worker who has geocached all over the globe, “caching is all about the camaraderie. It’s a great way to meet interesting people and learn about these incredible, secret places.”

Ten minutes in, our toes have gone numb. The tunnel forks and narrows. “The penitent man shall pass,” laughs Plawler as he kneels low to duck-walk through the sunken section. Suddenly Honupohaku rears up, holding an empty Michelob bottle high. “I’ve found it!” he jokes. “Beware he who drinks from false grails,” Errol fires back. He zips the bottle into his pack, in accordance with the geocacher’s environmental creed: Cache in, trash out. A moment later the lights of our LED torch bounce off a golden chalice buried among the rocks.

While it might not be a true treasure granting eternal life, as foolish as it seems standing here in the cold pit of a mountain, signing our names in the logbook under a short list of other successful seekers, the find is rewarding nevertheless. “Just be careful,” Errol warns as we stumble back out into the light. “Once you’ve been bitten by the geocache bug, it’s contagious.”

In conjunction with this story, we’ve hidden a cache somewhere on O‘ahu: “The Hana Hou(ly) Grail.” To find it, you’ll need to first solve the puzzle on our Facebook page. Go towww.facebook.com/hanahou  to start your quest.

KiteJam

by twinink on January 26, 2013

Click to expand

A League Of Their Own

by twinink on October 25, 2012

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

Music pumps over the loudspeakers, drowning out the cheering fans as the players charge onto the court. All the greats are here: numbers 8, 6, 23. Only this is not Madison Square Garden, and the names above those numbers aren’t Bryant, James, Jordan. This is the Pälolo Valley park gym, and the jerseys displaying the star players’ names read Dar Dar, Two An and Yos.

“Welcome to the opening games of the second annual All-Mike Basketball Tournament!” a hyped-up announcer shouts. Close to four hundred people pack the bleachers: uncles, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents and dozens of jubilant toddlers stamping their feet. Then, as at any sporting event, everyone rises for the national anthem—or in this case anthems—one for each of the three island nations represented on the court: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The stakes are high in today’s game: This is the first rematch between last year’s two finalists, defending champs Bang Bang Kosrae and Chuuk State. It’s also the first game in a season that runs eight weeks; in that time, twenty teams will play more than ninety games in gymnasiums throughout town, from Pälolo Valley to the University of Hawai‘i’s Klum Gym. But more than bragging rights, the players in these games earn something deeper: a sense of pride in their identity as strangers in a strange land.

Since their inception two years ago, All-Mike men’s basketball and women’s volleyball tournaments have galvanized the Micronesian community in Hawai‘i. Thousands of people showed up to the inaugural season’s basketball championship at the Blaisdell Arena. “The fact that we were there changed a lot of people’s thinking,” says Dr. Wilfred Alik, head of the Micronesian Health Advisory Coalition (MHAC) and co-chair of the tournament. “It’s often a struggle just to gain access to public courts.” Because of the negative stereotypes surrounding Micronesians in Hawai‘i, many thought that playing in a big venue like the Blaisdell would be impossible. “Many were downright scared,” says Alik, “but sitting in the Blaisdell Arena, the feeling—that sense of empowerment— was palpable.” Word spread across the Pacific, and Micronesian pride rippled throughout the islands of Oceania.

“Players want to fly in, the demand is so high,” Alik laughs. “We didn’t have a choice this year. We had to bring the tournament back.”

Micronesians are the newest kids on the block; they began immigrating to Hawai‘i in earnest in 1986, when the United States ratified a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with several Micronesian states. The treaty gave the citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia (comprising Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap) open border access to the United States and granted them access to many of the benefits enjoyed by legal immigrants, including the right to live and work here. The United States in return was granted exclusive military access to the region. Many COFA citizens, particularly those from the Marshall Islands, first came to the United States for health care; between 1946 and 1958, the US military tested nuclear weapons on several of the Marshall Islands—sixtyseven tests in all, the equivalent of 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. The Marshallese, many of whom suffer from radiogenic diseases as a result, comprise the largest segment of the COFA immigrant population in Hawai‘i. Micronesians as a whole remained here, however, for the same reasons most immigrants do: the chance at a better life.

It’s no accident that the largest number of COFA citizens came to Hawai‘i; it’s geographically closer to Micronesia and has an existing Pacific island culture. Because of this, Hawai‘i must pay a lion’s share for the benefits Micronesians receive under the terms of the compact. It costs a hefty $110 million annually to cover the estimated twenty thousand Micronesians in Hawai‘i under the state’s Med-QUEST health plan, which is available to all citizens and legal aliens. State legislators tried to shift that cost to the federal government, reasoning that because health care coverage is mandated by a federal treaty, it’s the federal government’s responsibility to pay for it. However, the state is reimbursed only about 10 percent, which legislators argue constitutes an “unfair burden” on Hawai‘i’s resources. In 2010 Gov. Linda Lingle instituted a $15 million cut to Med-QUEST targeted exclusively at Micronesians. The MHAC sued, and the federal district court ruled in its favor: The cut was unconstitutional on the grounds that it was discriminatory.

All this translates into trouble for Micronesian immigrants trying to fit in. While it’s common for any new immigrant group to suffer discrimination, Micronesians, who make up only 2 percent of the state’s population, have endured more than their share. Some of this is due to rhetoric from the state’s political leaders, rhetoric that has created a widespread perception that Micronesians strain the state’s health care system and contribute nothing in return. Yet while COFA citizens pay state and federal taxes, they remain the only legal immigrants in the country who can never establish residency, vote or receive Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security. “Without those federally funded services,” says Wayne Tanaka, an attorney who has defended the interests of Hawai‘i’s Micronesians, “COFA citizens are basically paying for everyone else’s Social Security, food security and federal public health infrastructure.” Nevertheless, despite the federal court’s ruling against the exclusionary Med-Quest cuts, Gov. Neil Abercrombie has appealed the case.

Which brings us back to basketball: The first All-Mike tournament was launched in response to that appeal, says Alik. “We were looking for ways to raise money to cover the legal fees.” To everyone’s surprise, the greater success was the byproduct: the sense of community and camaraderie that happens on the court. For an immigrant group struggling to assimilate, sports leagues provided a way to belong, a rallying cry.

 

This time around, the second season of All-Mike strives for a higher goal: bringing disparate Pacific island communities together. “We are not ‘Micronesians,’” explains Alik, who calls himself a “citizen of the Marshall Islands.” “People describe us as one ‘Micronesian’ entity, when in fact we are very distant cultures.” Micronesians are divided among two thousand islands making up eight independent entities (the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, the Northern Mariana Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Guam and Wake Island). Each has its own language and culture.

The All-Mike tournaments serve then as common ground on which geographic and cultural divides are erased in a flurry of sneaker squeaks and sweat. “It’s less about tearing down external stereotypes and more about strengthening pride from within,” says Noda Lojkar, the consul general of the Marshall Islands. To win on the court requires teamwork and collaboration, and basketball seemed a natural place to begin. “Basketball was introduced to the islands in the late ’60s,” explains Alik, “and it’s huge down there. In the Micronesian Olympics it’s one of the biggest events.” Indeed, the poetry of a cross-pivot layup translates well in any language.

In the first quarter of today’s game, defending champs Bang Bang Kosrae trade run-and-gun baskets against Chuuk State’s perimeter jump shots. It’s a physical game yet fouls are nearly nonexistent. Instead of wild elbows, competitors throw high-fives and encouraging whistles. Alik notes that throughout last year’s season there wasn’t a single fight.

“A lot of these players are leaders in their community, and they want to step up,” says Alik. Unlike the old guard of firstgeneration immigrants, “this new generation has been exposed to each other; they are more integrated, more open-minded.” One such player, David Taulung, team captain of Bang Bang Kosrae, often sees firsthand the camaraderie extending offcourt. “It just brings families and friends together,” Taulung says. “We see each other now and talk. We go down to other teams’ courts to play.”

Beyond tearing down social barriers, the sports leagues also provide players a chance to expand their horizons. Taulung, a talented Kaimukï High School grad who led his varsity team to an all-state victory, was selected to play ball in the Micronesian Olympics for Kosrae. “We won the silver medal,” he beams. “Playing basketball got me to travel and represent my country.” It was the first time Taulung had visited his homeland.

Halfway through the third quarter, Chuuk State makes a run, fortifying its defense, boxing out the perimeter and stealing balls. The energy is cheetah level; the players are not only fast and agile but skilled. As the crowd chants from the bleachers, Bang Bang Kosrae’s star point guard Dar Dar throws a gravity-defying block, cross-dribbles around two defenders and lofts a three-pointer. He pumps a victory fist to his fans, and in that moment something shifts. This is no longer just another Saturday afternoon pickup game; this is great basketball.

By the time the buzzer sounds, Bang Bang has secured its victory with a dizzying volley of layups, hook shots and explosive backboard tips. The Chuuk players accept the loss with big smiles and congratulatory hugs. And as the game ends, a wave of toddlers rush the court, screaming at the top of their lungs. Their sweaty fathers swoop them up in their arms, but the kids squirm away—no time for kisses. There’s a loose ball and a basket. And nothing, parent or otherwise, is going to get in their way.

 

King of the Mount

by twinink on October 25, 2012

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

The fallow deer seems curious—ears perked, nostrils flared. A chestnut-streaked tassel of hair along its neck stands on end. When Gordon Lau takes a step closer, the deer looks like it might bolt. Maybe it would, if it had feet.

Standing in the small workshop attached to the back of his Halawa Heights house, Lau applies a light sheen of eye shadow above the deer’s glass eye with an airbrush gun. He steps back to survey his work, lowering his thick magnifying glasses, the kind watchmakers wear. “It’s looking better,” Lau assesses. “Almost alive.”

For Lau, one of a handful of professional taxidermists in Hawai‘i and the only one on O‘ahu, the technique of bringing the dead to life is not just a career but a lifelong passion, one that runs in the family. “My grandfather taught me the old-school way,” says Lau of his grandfather Kong Sing Lau, a self-made man who hunted out of necessity to feed his family of ten. Taxidermy followed as an extension of his enterprising nature, a way to extend the profits from a kill. “As a kid I used to love going into his shack, where all the hunters would gather with their animals to be mounted,” Lau recalls. “I loved the stories they would tell about how they caught them. It sparked my imagination. And the whole time I’d help my grandfather skin his game.”

Lau proudly displays his grandfather’s 1925 diploma from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy alongside a snarling collection of Lau’s best work: a black bear in mid-strike, a wild boar with glistening razor tusks. While the years and termites have taken their toll, the yellowing diploma is still Lau’s “most prized possession. My grandfather would be happy to know that I took over,” says Lau. “This is what he wanted me to do.”

For many people, taxidermy carries a connotation of the grotesque or bizarre. Like undertakers or morticians, anyone who voluntarily works in close quarters with death is often associated with society’s fringe. “I’m always a little leery of telling people what I do,” Lau admits, “because when they hear, they think I’m some kind of maniac.” Perhaps for this reason it’s all the more surprising to find Lau so affable and sincere—an introvert, yes, but also a gracious and affectionate family man, the kind who marks his kids’ height on the door frame and leaves the marks well after the kids are grown. And he’s understated about his work: “He’s very modest,” says his wife, Leona. “He doesn’t like to advertise, but when you watch him work, you can see the care and pride he puts in. Every hair has to be precise.”

When it comes to taxidermy, you have only one shot to get it right. Once an animal is mounted, it becomes a statue, forever locked in place. It helps then to be both a perfectionist and crackerjack zoologist— a professional observer of animals. Lau will spend hours analyzing the exact number of wrinkles on a growling boar’s snout. “I study the way they look around and position themselves,” Lau says as he adjusts a tendon in the deer’s cheek. “I try to do the best job I can to be naturalistic.”

That’s much easier said than done, especially when dealing with the kills Island hunters leave at Lau’s front door. Lau’s often up late into the night, measuring cadavers, skinning capes, extracting and cleaning skulls. “You don’t want to walk out there at midnight,” Leona quips. A carpenter by trade, Lau bears the muscular, knotted-rope physique of a Shaolin monk and approaches his tasks with the same fastidious dedication. He rises at 5:30 a.m. and works until he’s beat, usually around midnight. When he’s not in his shop, Lau likes to hit the trails behind his house. A former director of the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team, he’ll clock upward of eighty miles a week—mud, rain or shine. “Just look at him,” Leona exhorts, positioning Lau next to a fierce-looking mountain buck. “My old billy goat.”

As a young man Lau spent his formative years in intimate proximity with animals. The Lau family had ranches on the Big Island and chicken farms in Nanakuli, so death was part of everyday life. “I grew up taking care of those chickens,” Lau reflects, “and when they got mature, I’d have to kill and clean them. Gore and guts were just part of my childhood.” His later love for taxidermy evolved naturally from his love for the wilderness. A prize-winning bowhunter, Lau has spent most of his life in the mountains, raising dogs to hunt invasive mammals such as wild boar, axis deer and Mouflon sheep. “When we first met, he took me hunting,” Leona recalls. “That was kinda our thing.” Lau’s hunting days are now largely behind him, but he views the practice as necessary, one that’s even supported by the State of Hawai‘i. Like most local hunters, he targets only introduced species that threaten Hawai‘i’s native flora and fauna.

The word taxidermy is derived from two ancient Greek words: taxis, meaning movement; and derma, meaning skin. In the 1800s the first taxidermists were upholsterers who plumped up dead animals with cotton and rags so that they reassumed their original shape and size. They sold these stiff and expressionless “stuffed animals” as toys for children or as statement pieces for men of a certain class. Modern taxidermists look back on such practices disdainfully, and if you dare refer to their finished work as “stuffed” (the proper term is “mounted”), you risk ending up with your head on their wall. Visit any natural history museum in the world, and you’ll see the level of craftsmanship to which Lau aspires: perfectly mounted flying squirrels frozen midflight, a pride of lions attacking a wildebeest or a group of antelope quietly grazing the savannah.

Lau first experienced this still-life dynamism in the shop of George Lee, Hawai‘i’s premier taxidermist, who ran a store off Kapahulu Avenue in Honolulu for over fifty years. “When I was young I used to go in there and just be amazed.” Being able to walk right up to a bobcat and touch it, Lau remembers thinking, “Wow, this is better than the zoo!”

Taxidermy at this level of artistry is an exhausting process, not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart. As Lau explains how it’s done, he unwraps a once majestic red stag from a large plastic bag. Known as the “king’s trophy” for being the preferred game of British nobility, it’s been shipped to Lau from a local hunter on safari in Australia. It looks today less than regal—more like roadkill. There are numerous, painstaking steps to transforming this freeze-dried carcass into a lifelike trophy. First there’s the fleshing, which involves removing the hide with a paring knife. “Call me crazy, but I love this part,” Lau laughs. “It’s so peaceful.” Next the hide is detoxified in a pickle bath. Then comes the longest stage: tanning and drying, which can take up to three months. “A lot of people send their animals to Mainland tanneries, and they come back dry and full of holes. I like to do my own tanning.” Because not every animal is the same size, Lau orders a custom epoxy mannequin over which he mounts the skin. Lau molds the mannequin into the desired pose, applying sinews of clay to the synthetic bone. This stage requires both a sculptor’s imagination and a surgeon’s understanding of anatomy. Once the cast is ready, Lau applies glue, pulls the skin taut and hand-stitches the hide together. “You have be an artist to do this,” Lau says. “You gotta know how to manipulate the skin and the clay, how to mix and blend colors, how to airbrush. … It’s meticulous work.”

Depending on the size and condition of the animal, mounting can take anywhere from three months to a year. And while a boar’s foot ashtray (a specialty item of Lau’s) might cost as little as $75, a full boar or grizzly bear can run as high as several thousand dollars. With more than thirteen million recreational hunters and over one hundred thousand registered taxidermists in the United States alone, taxidermy is estimated today to be a half-billion- dollar industry—less fringe than one might think. Still, despite the burgeoning conventions, trade magazines and websites—where professionals trade tips on rehydrating a coyote face or how to shampoo a bear—the industry is comprised mostly of small operators like Lau.

Inside his spotless workshop a Malakin cockatoo, a Namibian kudu and a black buck stand guard beside the deer and wild boars. The cockatoo belonged to a wealthy matron who wanted to see her pet bird fly one last time; the black buck’s herd escaped a private zoo and proceeded to ravage Lana‘i’s native forest; and the African kudu crossed three continents and two oceans to reach Lau’s door. Stuffed in a shockingly small cooler, thirty more animals await reanimation. In a high corner tucked beneath the corrugated tin roof, a dozen antlers hang out to dry. Lau takes down two pairs: a small one covered in downy velvet, a larger one twisted and battle-scarred. “Guys always go for the biggest rack,” Lau deadpans.

In his living room hangs a painting of a Native American archer, bow taut, arrow aimed at a wild pheasant. Apart from his mounts, it’s the only art in his house— a reflection of Lau’s sense of belonging to an ancient order. “Sometimes I wish I was born in those days,” he reflects. “There was a kinship with nature you don’t get nowadays.” As Lau applies a light sheen of linseed oil to the fallow deer’s antlers, a mosquito lands on its neck. A second later it zips away, probably disappointed and confused. Even the deer seems to regard Lau quizzically, as though startled to again be alive. Lau rubs its muzzle tenderly. It might seem ironic to those who do not hunt that someone can have such deep, almost spiritual reverence for the creatures he has killed or those he mounts, but to Lau there’s no contradiction. “In my way I try to give honor to the animal,” he says, “to bring back pride.”

Brothers in Fire

by twinink on October 25, 2012

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

At first there is only darkness broken by the steady beat of a lalidrum. Another lali joins the rhythm, then five more, the noise building like slow-rolling thunder until, in an instant, it stops. Suddenly a blue and ghostly flame lights the stage as Viavia “VJ” Tiumalu holds aloft a nifo oti knife, its hooked tip on fire. With his naked palm, he drags the flame down the length of the steel blade, setting it ablaze. Then the defending world fireknife champion raises it high like a warrior of old, lets out a wild cry and begins to dance.

Let’s be clear: This is not your grandfather’s fireknife dancing. You may think you know all about those twirling rings of fire—perhaps you’ve seen them at a lu‘au, in a Cirque du Soleil show, even in Lilo and Stitch—but until you’ve witnessed the dancing at the World Fireknife Championship, you haven’t seen the best. The event, which takes place over four nights every May at the Polynesian Cultural Center on O‘ahu’s North Shore, has grown to become the Olympics of the fireknife dancing world. In 2012 the championship marked its twentieth anniversary and welcomed more than forty professional dancers who’d come from all over the globe. The ones to beat: Rex and VJ Tiumalu from Orlando, 2011’s defending champions, Rex in the intermediate division, VJ overall. Only this year there was a twist: with Rex now old enough to qualify for the overall division, 2012 marked the first time the brothers would compete against each other … and both were determined to win.

With their powerful bodies and their long hair pulled into matching buns, the Tiumalu brothers look much the same—but the similarities mostly end there. “We’re close in our dancing but not in anything else,” Rex confides as he and VJ recline together pre-competition on a lauhala mat in a thatched fale (house) in the PCC’s Samoan Village. “Outside the stage we are very different people. I’m outgoing and VJ is very serious.” As if to highlight this, Rex breaks away to greet a rival dancer while VJ stays seated. Only two years older than his 18-year-old brother, he radiates an intensity far removed from Rex’s boisterous charm. “We are brothers,” VJ concurs, “but we very much stand alone.”

On the first two nights of the 2012 competition, the Tiumalu brothers’ routines come just minutes apart, Rex taking the stage before VJ in both rounds. Every dancer has a different style — some are more fluid, some flashy, some fierce. Rex casts himself in that last mold: “You have to come out furious. It’s not a baton-twirling competition. It’s not a circus act. This is a Samoan warrior dance.” He launches into his act, his knife a blurred spinning circle of fire that he tosses seamlessly from hand to hand. “I try to dance like I’m fighting someone in battle,” he says. His dream is to one day become another Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and when he isn’t dancing, he’s training in his uncle’s wrestling school. “Performance is my passion,” Rex asserts.

VJ follows shortly after with a more muted and mesmerizing routine. He doesn’t leap or tumble; his dance is smooth and fast, with nothing forced or strained. Ambidextrous, VJ can spin two knives in opposite directions simultaneously, a feat no one else can match. “Rex puts more anger into his dance,” VJ says. “For me it just flows. Once I get my knife spinning, it’s like it won’t stop.”

It was that unique ability that set VJ apart in the competition in 2011 and won him the world title—and this year it sends him sailing into this competition’s final three. Rex, though, does not advance. Offstage the elder Tiumalu remains modest, moving and speaking with a languor that’s in direct contrast to the velocity with which he performs. “For me it isn’t just about winning,” VJ says. “I want people to learn about our culture, where we come from.”

One of the people the Tiumalu brothers have inspired is Preston Weber, who also hails from Florida. Just 13, Preston has won every fireknife dance competition he’s entered, and in 2012 he became the youngest dancer ever to win the PCC’s intermediate division, taking the title Rex won the year before. Preston is largely self-taught and was the only non-Polynesian in competition. “People tell me I’ve made the record books because I’m the first full Caucasian to ever win,” shrugs Preston the night after being crowned. Given that the dance is so deeply rooted in Samoan heritage, his win is no small feat. And both Rex and VJ, who occasionally mentor the young champ back in Florida, see this as a good thing.

“Preston is a perfect example of how fireknife dancing inspires many kids,” says VJ. “To have him represent our culture only makes it stronger.”

Though fireknife dancing today draws from modern innovations in martial arts and acrobatics, its origins date back to a time eons ago when Samoan chiefs waged war on neighboring villages. The traditional ailao dance was an intimidation routine, much like the Maori haka, performed before battle by Samoan warriors to demonstrate their prowess to their enemies. The skill with which a fighter could swing his nifo oti war club in the dance delivered a lethal warning of the doom foes would face in combat.

The ailao afi—the ailao with the addition of flame—was created five thousand miles from its island roots. In 1946 Uluao Letuli, a young dancer from American Samoa, was performing his knife routine in Golden Gate Park when he was inspired by a fellow performer, a Hindu fire-eater. Borrowing some fuel, Letuli, who was nicknamed “Freddie” for his Astaire-like dance moves, wrapped a towel around his blade and set it on fire. “I did not dream that the fire knife dance would become so widespread,” Letuli writes in his biography, Flaming Sword of Samoa: The Story of the Fire Knife Dance. Yet it did, in no small measure thanks to Letuli himself, who performed his dance in movies and TV shows and on live stages all over the world. For forty years until his passing in 2003, Letuli taught fireknife to thousands of future dancers.

One of Letuli’s students was Viavia Tiumalu Sr., a lead fireknife dancer at the long-running Makahiki Luau at SeaWorld Orlando, who literally passed the torch to his sons. “We practically grew up onstage,” VJ recalls. “When we were little, we used to sit on the side every day,” Rex chimes in, “and watch while our mom danced Tahitian and our dad danced fire.” Today the two brothers continue the family tradition, both performing professionally in that same SeaWorld show. “If it wasn’t for our parents, we’d probably be playing Nintendo,” Rex jokes. “They really pushed us to become the dancers we are today.” But even though these siblings live and work together, they make it a point to always perform apart. “We alternate days,” Rex explains. “I don’t want VJ to see what I’m doing, and he doesn’t want to see me.” VJ frames their competitiveness in a more intense light: “Even though we’re cool with each other, when we’re on stage we’re there to kill each other.”

You don’t need to know a great deal about fireknife dancing to understand its danger. To dance with fire—to place a flaming knife on your bare feet or tap hot steel to the end of your tongue—is to deny fear and pain. “All firedancers get burned,” Rex shrugs, showing off the scorched black blister on his hand where he caught his knife wrong in the semifinals. VJ exposes the burn scars on his thigh, a souvenir from the time his grass skirt caught fire. “I was out four months with second-degree burns. I looked like Frankenstein with dead skin hanging off my legs.” Rex points to a thin pink scar encircling his throat. “I spun the blade around and it slashed me right here. It’s something you love but you get hurt for it.”

Beyond the flames, the hooked lave— or “tooth of death”—is always exposed. And competition knives must be sharpened and inspected to keep in line with the tradition of the war dance. “The knife originally was a weapon,” says VJ, “with the lave used to cut the opponent’s head off. After the battle you would carry your enemy’s head back on the hook to show the king.” That’s the reason why today dropping your knife in competition results in a dreaded three-point deduction. “You can’t let go of the knife,” PCC judge Vaitu‘u Kaio stresses. It signifies a fatal mistake. “You’re there as a warrior to protect your family, your country. Once you drop it, you’re dead.”

As VJ takes center stage on the final night of competition, the sold-out 2,700-seat theater erupts in applause. The 2011 champ looks fated to win again this year … until the unthinkable happens. In the last seconds of his nearly flawless final routine, he drops his knife. The same mistake that eliminated his brother Rex in the semis tonight costs VJ the crown and puts him in third place.

Immediately after the winner, Joseph Cadousteau of Tahiti, is announced, the former champ stands backstage, looking like a marathon runner just over the finish line. “I’ve never been more tired in my life,” VJ admits with a hangdog smile. But in the next moment he’s swarmed by a pack of exuberant adolescent boys, all angling for a photo op. And in the next breath he vows to return. “I’m proud to represent a tradition so far removed from its roots in Samoa. It isn’t just about the dance. We do this to inspire future generations so our culture doesn’t disappear.”

As for each other, VJ and Rex come away from this year’s World Fireknife Championship with newfound mutual respect. “I’m not even saying this because he’s my brother, but VJ to me is ahead of everybody,” Rex gushes. VJ echoes the praise: “To tell you the truth, I think Rex is better than me—one of the best fireknife dancers I’ve ever seen. And I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother.”