Taimane's 'Elements' will give you the feels

Text Will Caron
Art Joe Marquez

It was a show about the elements of life—the things that make us who we are, the forces that pull people together, and the music that inspires full lives. It was also a show that had only been rehearsed one time in the actual space it would be performed. Despite that (evidently) minor detail, Taimane Gardner's elemental odyssey—which debuted last Friday at the Hawaii Theatre Center to a nearly sold-out crowd—was poised, confident and executed with a level of professionalism that suits Gardner's elegant transition from street performer to composer for the stage.

Broken into two halves, the performance featured Gardner's unique mix of delicate and powerful ʻukulele work accompanied by a cast of musicians, dancers, acrobats and singers (and one familiar slam poet) in a set of orchestration that even a maestro with Hawaii Theatre salt on his brow might not feel confident about without at least a few dress rehearsals.

This was Gardner's first performance in the space and, yes, there were a few hiccups. “My ʻukulele cut out at one point, and then I had this coughing fit during one of the songs,” she says over the phone a few days later. “I thought to myself, 'if you have to walk off stage, you better make it look beautiful.'” And, like the born performer that she is, Gardner handled both snags effortlessly, making it look like just another part of the show.

Billed as “Taimane favorites,” the first half of the show featured some of the songs in her repertoire that initially got her noticed as a street performer on Waikiki's famous strip and then sent her to Japan as a teenager to tour the country (she remains very popular there), as well as reprise performances of songs from her first celestial suite about the planets. But even the most familiar of standards were re-cast for the stage in creative ways, playing to Gardner's strong stage presence. Think Zeppelin's “Stairway to Heaven” woven together with elements of Beethoven. Or her striking rendition of “E Ala Ē,” which opened the evening and featured a bare-chested, fishhook-clad Kealoha who would act as prologue for Gardner's narrative voice throughout the performance. From the get-go, the energy was electric.

“I thought two things really made the show,” Gardner says. “The first was that the people who were a part of the performance were all incredibly committed to making it work. Things like the lighting—I really didn't know what to expect, but the lighting guy, Bill, he nailed it. The second thing that made it so great was that the audience was really engaged.”

Gardner's planets took on a whole new life when set to dancing. As the energy of a commanding Jupiter gave way to a softer Luna, Gardner played seated on the stage, gazing up at an acrobat suspended 30 feet in the air performing an aerial hoop dance. Soft white light illuminated the dancer and, with Gardner's music, created a wonderful evocation of the moon.

Interestingly, both the music and choreography for Luna placed the focus on the dancer, not Gardner; her ʻukulele acting more like the heartbeat that keeps everything going. This would not be the only time this happened; during the second half of the show a primary dancer was once again beautifully evocative of the element Air. And Gardner, once again, played to the dancer, acting like the current that lifted the pieces of her costume behind her. Light and buoyant, Air was nonetheless loaded with emotion and pathos, showing off Gardner's ability to be substantive while matching her music to the element that inspired it.

There were, of course, other times when she and her ʻukulele were the focus. During Water, the calm “pit pat” of droplets heard during Kealoha's introduction suddenly gave way to an explosion of rapid waterfall strikes coming from Gardner's ʻukulele. Dancers rushed past in a flow of chaotic music inspired by the power of water. During Fire, the visual cues may have been on a pair of Seville-inspired flamenco dancers, while Gardner, off to the side, had hardly a light on her, but a flurry of wonderfully exhausting flamenco strumming—reinforced by the accompanying guitarist—made her presence known. By the time Fire had burnt its way through the final crescendo of strumming, the audience, too, felt as if its oxygen supply had been consumed—and we wanted more.

“I definitely had more fun with the second half,” Gardner says. “I can get into a different character and let Kealoha do most of the talking. He's so confident and positive; he's a good counterbalance for the show because it can be a little melancholic at times, but his energy balances that out. He's in it for the art.”

If one of the elements contained a message, it would have to be Earth. In a Pacific-inspired song that was at once joyful for the beauty of the land and the sea, and also mournful for the diminishing of that beauty, Gardner sang over a blending of contemporary dance with hula and other Pacific dance traditions. Advocating for mankind to take care of this place here before we look upward to the stars, she asks, “Why don't you listen?” Adding poignancy, and a dash of immediacy, a row of smiling keiki o ka ʻaina danced the song to its conclusion as the audience cheered.

After a beat, the accompanying musicians returned to a now darkened stage for what had to have been the absolute coolest of the evening's songs. Dressed in New Orleans Mardi Gras-inspired, neon-trimmed, black outfits, these bedazzled skeletons introduced Pluto, king of the underworld, with a jazzy, groovy, old King Louie, rag-time overture. But Gardner did warn us that this swingin' god—great dance moves though he undoubtedly has—can be rebellious, moody and dark. The multifaceted nature of Gardner's musicianship and composition really shown through in this piece, capturing the complexity of the, perhaps, slightly misunderstood god. An uplifting chorus at the end of the piece added a last trace of nuance as the violinist played the song out with a hauntingly beautiful closing statement to end the show.

“I'm treating myself to going shopping now,” says Gardner. “It's nice to be free. So many months of working on something, it's nice to finally let it all go. By the time you're done with it, you just want to go home and sleep.”

And that's exactly what she did after the show. “Everyone was like, 'where's the after party?' and I snuck out and went home,” she laughs.

Considering the large amount of work that must have went in to shaping such a complicated performance, not to mention the high-energy and all-in attitude Gardner naturally brings to her live performances, and it's no wonder that all she wanted to do after was go sleep. But artists can only rest for so long before they're back at the craft they love.

“I want to make an EP of the songs played in the elements suite, so one of the next things I'll need to do is to record those,” Gardner muses, already planning her next project. “I'd also really love to bring the show to Maui and see what audiences there think of it.”

There's no doubt that they'd love it on the Valley Isle too. The songs Gardner has written and presented here touch on the cosmic nature of our existence through a medium that anyone can understand and appreciate. Her music—composed and arranged and performed as it is—can only bring her success as she demonstrates what she can really do. It's been a long time since anyone doubted her technical skills on the ʻuke, but if there were ever doubts that Taimane Gardner can write beautiful, complicated, resonating music, this show has surely dispelled them.


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