REVIEW: He Mele a Hilo by Ryka Aoki

he mele a hilo

REVIEW: He Mele a Hilo: A Hilo Song by Ryka Aoki (May 5, 2014); Topside Signature; 342 pages.
As a U.S. mainlander and a non-dancer, I don’t know much about hula or Hawaii, so this novel, at first, felt kind of beautiful-mystical-foreign to me. It follows primarily the lives Noelani Choi and members of her halau (a troupe of hula dancers) in Hilo, Hawaii. But the aura of strangeness soon dissipated, and I was pulled in to the jostling constellation of relationships in which the novel’s webbed. Hula may be the presenting situation, but it’s not the point here; thinking about hula helps sharpen and guide the point, and the novel is certainly generous enough to allow the uninitiated to understand what’s what, but it isn’t the point itself; or it’s not, at least, the only point.

In fact, one of the loveliest things about this novel is that it’s generous. The reader is admitted into the secret lives and points-of-view of several very different characters, and it becomes almost a Babel of voices (in several variations of English and pidgin), perspectives and temperaments and motivations, yet the reader is always drawn near, made able to understand and empathize with the characters.

At heart, it feels like a folktale: specificity and detail vibrate on a larger, more universal scale. The novel pulls together a sensual celebration of food, dance, love and nature, mixes it with some magical strangeness and reality-rule-bending, and makes it all hum together as something larger, both pleasurable and meaningful.

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Review: Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy

REWVIEW: “Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy” at Bard College

Yesterday my wife took a vacation day from being a therapist and I took a vacation day from… being… well, being, and she whisked me up through the pouring rain to the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson to watch “Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy,” a queer cabaret hosted by Justin Vivian Bond.

The cabaret was held in what I assume was a permanent performance space at Bard, built to look like a giant tent (but with solid doors and walls), a space so lush and glittery and fairy-lit that our seatmates were debating whether it called to mind a circus tent or the set of I Dream of Genie. I kind of think it was the latter, just without the o-shaped velvet couch.

Mx. Bond hosted the evening, and so was less present on stage than I’d wished (I kept hoping for a song or something, but Bond graciously played empressarix to other queer acts). I’ve been a fan of Mx. Bond’s since seeing Shortbus, the heartbreaking film by John Cameron Mitchell in which Mx. Bond was featured, so I came ready for v. But the featured acts were so fun I hardly cared Bond wasn’t the star.

First, I was beside myself a little bit when I spied Leigh Crow (Elvis Herselvis, one of my longtime Drag King heroes) waiting in the wings, who came onstage twice to croon out some Presley hits. Herselvis/Crow is a dreamy butch king/King who can really belt and kind of sparkles an oozy, smarmy-but-magnetic sexuality on stage. I’m not sure if it’s the actually-beautiful-and-powerful singing or the wink-wink type of charm that gets me every time, but I’m got.  If I were thinner or more spry, my panties would have dropped. As it was, I just settled for a hot flash and a bit of starstruck fangirling. (I’m old enough now at 47 that perhaps it’s the wrong term… maybe “fanwomaning” is better?) (No. No, it is not.)

Davon, a dancer who lip-synched/danced to some iconic singers, moved Mx Bond (and me) to tears with a beautiful performance about having been hooked on Crystal Meth. Davon danced to music from Porgy and Bess and an aria sung (I think) by Jessye Norman, among other music, and all of It had resonance around Blackness and queerness, and I got good and shattered. One often gets into trouble trying to articulate what’s going on in art… and why would you, when it’s so rightly said by the art itself? I just nod: yes, yes.

As a disabled person who had a youth of able-bodiedness, I always get a bit choked up when I see beautiful dance—that a body can be and do what the body on stage is and does (the agility, the self-possession, the body-as-expression-and-creation) just gets me, it’s so perfectly queer and beautiful. So when the next act, Sadonna—which is a contraction of “Sad Madonna”—came onstage, it was an immense, throat-lump-melting relief. I mean, I was raised by a midwestern white American and an image-conscious Greek immigrant, so public crying is absolutely out of the question.

Sadonna does sad versions of classic Madonna songs—both musically right on and intelligently funny. The leader, Miguel Gutierrez, is funny, but he’s also a beautiful singer; the group (Gutierrez, plus the three Slutinos–Sad Latino boys backup singers) manages to pull to the surface the mournful potential of Madonna’s poppy bubblegum, but balances it with clever wit and the relief of pure camp.

Star Amerasu sang original dance music—confident, bouncy, hair-flipping fun. I think Amerasu might have a great career as a songwriter; there were some nice pop complexities and textures in there.

I flipped a little when Big Dipper was called to the stage—a former student introduced me to his work years ago, and I fell in love with the brainy sendup of that crotch-grabbing, girl-objectifying, hypermasculinist brand of hiphop he ironizes by unabashedly queering it. Apparently, he gets accused often of being “dirty” because his lyrics are explicit in their objectification of bearish men and a frank glorification of gay sex, but it strikes me as a kind of performance art he’s doing, getting folks to balk at the openly queer sexuality when a similar frank-but-hetero sexuality is accepted (perhaps even expected or required) in mainstream hiphop.

That was the roundup of folks, and it was rightly-paced and emotionally-balanced. And it was, as I said, a happy relief to be back in a queer space. Of course, as do many queer spaces nowadays, it held its share of straight folk, most of them white and older and coupled. What felt like a steep ticket price to a lesbian couple may have felt like nothing to middle class established straight couples, and may have been unimaginable to younger queers, but swinging it felt well worth the scrimping we’ll do in other expenses to balance it. And the mainstream folks who were there—the older, white married couples—seemed down and eager to support the performers.

Here’s the gyst: seek out these artists online or, when you can, in live performance. Follow Mx. Bond for new ideas and empressarix services. And more generally, when you find a queer artist whose work moves you, tell them.