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Feb. 2004, Vol. 29 No. 1
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Arts at UH

Behind the Scenes at Kennedy Theatre January 2001

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University of Hawai'i at Manoa dance program

Iona Dance Theatre

Sumptuous Dance

dancer in costume

Assistant Director Summer Partlon as the Goddess Pele in Hawaiian Myths and Legends. Photo by Carl Hefner.

Alumna Cheryl Flaharty Directs the Iona Contemporary Dance Theatre

by Stacy Yuen Hernandez

Most artists spend a fair amount of time studying the creative process fueling their craft. Cheryl Flaharty, founder of the Iona Contemporary Dance Theatre, has made it a lifetime pursuit.

"Life is dance. Dance is life," she muses, passion evident in her face and voice. Officially, Flaharty is creative director. In reality, her many roles include choreographer, grant writer, executive director and costume designer.

As choreographer, Flaharty (BA in dance ’81 Manoa) envisions physical movement embodying the hybrid dance form Iona is famous for. She describes it as "a cross between the Japanese avant-garde dance form Butoh and modern dance, with a strong new-age focus and a little performance art." The group’s productions are undeniably unique. A Los Angeles Times review called an Iona performance "a visual coup de theater ... (that) casts a genuine spell."

Art is a life process, Flaharty says. "If you go back and look at the source, it brings you to where you are today. " Born in Xynea, Ohio, but raised in Hawai'i, she first staged dance presentations featuring neighborhood children on the lanai of her family’s Foster Village home. Her father was an Air Force bomber pilot, and her mother, disabled by rheumatoid arthritis, designed dresses in her head.

Flaharty’s love of dance persisted into college. "I’ll never forget my first choreography class with Carl Woltz. He taught us the importance of meditating before starting something."

UH made it possible for her to have a career in dance, she says. A majority of Iona’s dancers are UH graduates or students.

The road for an arts organization can be rough in a place like Hawai'i. "We’re in competition with other things. Still, we’ve created something loved by a large chunk of people, " she reflects.

"It’s hard to grow beyond Hawai'i, but we have a national and international presence as well. "A goal this year is to create a for-profit arm. Fortunately, Flaharty has a solid business brain to accompany her creative side. "I try to continue my art but look at market development, " she says.

She also hopes to find a permanent home for the company—costumes and props overflow the modest Kailua rental it calls home base. There, volunteers busily build extraordinary costumes for a coming performance. Flaharty displays a piece of fabric, her eyes lighting up as she explains what she plans to do with it.

dancer in angel costume

Dancer Lena Ang (BA ’91 Manoa) in costume for Vision of Angels. Photo by Carl Hefner.

Trained as a dancer, she excels in costume design, redefining the word "lavish" as it applies to dancers’ apparel. She has transformed a dancer into an ornate tree and painted nearly nude dancers silver.

"I see it as one—dancing and visual art. Anything done with consciousness is dance," she says. "I like the moment an idea moves to the physical form. Where you actually tell the dancers 'now take this and do that.'"

Improvisation is key to Iona performances, and perhaps the same could be said for the audiences. You never know what to expect but leave with something personal. "I try to create something visual, auditory, kinesthetic, intellectual and spiritual so everyone has something," she says.

Iona performs Hawaiian Myths & Legends Friday, April 2nd and Saturday, April 3, 2004 at the Hawaii Theatre Center,, (808)528-0506.

Stacy Yuen Hernandez is a freelance writer based in Honolulu.