Equal parts eastern philosopher and western choreographer, Cheryl Flaherty has led Hawai‘i-based dance project IONA through two decades and at 11 major productions, compiling a body of work that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. By combining the Japanese dance theatre tradition of butoh with contemporary western choreography, Flaherty leaves us with a fusion that is deeply familiar, yet uniquely IONA.
In an age of fast-paced, short form, easily consumed media, the realm of full evening dance theatre is often ignored, sometimes marginalized and, at worst, dismissed with a hint of ridicule. Yet it is against this cultural backdrop of never-ending Internet memes, banal news bites and cute cat videos that Flaherty’s work with the IONA dance company stands out as weighty, substantial and novel—perhaps even to the point of being alien to modern audiences. Flaherty uses different dancers in her productions, moving through a changing cast of roughly 30 performers.
By addressing fault line issues—such as our dwindling water supply, our relationships to animals and the quality of the food we consume—Flaherty mindfully anchors her work in a place of worthwhile discussion, ripe for creative interpretation. By choosing to do so through abstraction, she takes the process a step further, inciting her audience to draw on their own personal perspectives and giving them enough room to come to their own conclusions.
“I make my work for my audience,” says Flaherty, and that is exactly why we should all be paying attention. With IONA, though, simply paying attention isn’t enough. An IONA theatre piece is the kind of work that demands a certain degree of interaction and emotional engagement to be fully realized. In this sense, Flaherty’s insistence on putting the audience first in her creative process, is only natural and right.
While the audience comes first in Flaherty’s work, beauty—in the aesthetic sense—comes second. This holds true regardless of the overall topic she has chosen for the piece. Even taken out of context, the costume pieces worn by the actors in almost any IONA production are glorious to behold. Whether it’s the living Maitreya fountain from “Electric Blue” or the sumptuous red evening gown adorned by Sumr Mie in IONA’s latest piece “Dominion,” the key element in all of Flaherty’s work stands out: in her own words, “beauty.”
“Beauty is both my inspiration and my aesthetic,” she says. This is perhaps why IONA’s set pieces have become popular for private events and corporate functions. Beauty for Beauty’s sake alone would not suffice in the long-form theatre format but, thankfully, IONA’s work transcends that particular trap. After all, good theatre should be felt, not simply observed.
In 1959, choreographer Hijikata Tatsumi and dancer Ohno Kazuo collaborated to create a new dance theatre form called butoh. In the post-war era of the 1950s, Japanese dance focused on imitating either Western forms or traditional forms of theatre such as Noh. Butoh, by contrast, was created to “resist fixity.” Hijikata sought to create a new aesthetic that embraced what he referred to as the “squat, earthbound physique [...] and the natural movements of the common folk. "The form was built on a vocabulary of crude physical gestures and uncouth habits: a direct assault on the refinement (miyabi) and understatement (shibui) so valued in Japanese aesthetics,” he wrote. But, drawing on her mentor Poppo Shiraishi’s overall approach, Flaherty transforms butoh from a dark, distressful art form into something light and playful.
If you’re in luck and it’s the right season, then chances are you can catch a showing of “Paint by Numbers,” a color encoded, jazz fusion piece that highlights Flaherty’s almost childlike approach to dance theatre. In contrast, she also has her more serious, buzzworthy piece “Dominion,” which touches on the incendiary topic of mankind’s relationship with the animal kingdom and, subsequently, the food we eat. For the record, Flaherty is a long-time vegetarian, but felt there was a larger dialogue in play around the issue of compassion; not only for animals, but for one another as well. Even meat-eaters will agree that there’s a looming, multifaceted discussion about our food choices that is difficult to vocalize without somehow outright condemning another person’s lifestyle choices. In this regard, dance theatre—in particular Flaherty’s approach with IONA—is a perfect vehicle to air out some of the otherwise difficult emotional nuances that surround this issue.
Flaherty hasn’t decided which piece to renew, and if it’s not quite the right time of the year, the perhaps you can take part in IONA’s annual fundraising gala at the Sheraton Waikīkī in the fall. Barring that, your best bet would be reaching out to IONA directly and booking a set of living fountains and artistic “minglers” for your own event. It’s hard to be bored in a room full of living art.
In an economic and cultural climate that increasingly seems to devalue autotelic art in all forms, the lavish, innovative and volunteer-supported IONA Dance Company defies gravity and speaks a life-affirming sensual language we would all do well to experience, at least once.
Visit www.iona360.com for more info, and be sure to message them to let them know what you think of their work.