SAN FRANCISCO — Patrick Makuakane is a genius.
For nearly three decades, he’s been the guiding force behind Na Lei Hulu, a San Francisco-based halau committed to teaching and preserving the Hawaiian culture through hula.
For a substantial number of those years, he’s also put together an annual performance gala, aptly titled the Hula Show, which displays the beauty and grace of Hawaiian dance as well as the welcoming spirit of island culture and lifestyle.
One year, Na Lei Hulu brought its annual production to the Napa Valley Opera House. But most years, you can find Makuakane and company at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts, providing fans of all things Hawaiian a delightful program of sights and sounds built around this sinuous Polynesian dance.
A dance that has flowing hand and hip movements, the hula portrays the words of the accompanying chant (oli) or song (mele) in a visual dance form.
There are many sub-styles of hula, with the main two categories being hula ’auana and hula kahiko. Ancient hula, as performed before Western encounters with Hawaii, is called kahiko. It is accompanied by chant and traditional instruments. Hula, as it evolved under Western influence in the 19th and 20th centuries, is called ’auana (a word that means to wander or drift). It is accompanied by song and Western-influenced musical instruments such as the guitar, the ukulele and the double bass.
Founded in 1985, Na Lei Hulu maintains a performance group of 30 dancers and offers classes to students in the beginning and intermediate levels. More than 300 adult students come through its doors each week, and 55 children attend its keiki classes.
For the Hula Show 2013, Makuakane took inspiration from the pages of 19th- and 20th-century Hawaiian language newspapers, drawing on legend, cartoons, personal ads, reviews, news and entertainment reporting of the day.
This year’s two-hour-plus performance is, as might be expected, a gem. It incorporates all that is attractive about Hawaii — not only music and dance but glorious dress, fragrant flowers, rich and colorful paintings scrolled as backdrop and all the aloha that more than 30 entertainers could muster.
Legend came in the form of Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes, as well as the Maile sisters, a name we know because of the flowering plant. Its flowers are quite inconspicuous and have a sweet and light fragrance of honey, ideal for the legend involving a little intrigue and deception.
The program included laments for the land, songs about love and devotion, even tunes about the newspapers themselves.
However, the most spectacular segment comes just prior to intermission, a salute to the jazz era of the early 20th century. Picture nearly two dozen wahine in flowing snow-white gowns, white gardenias in their hair a la Billie Holiday, singing (in English and Hawaiian) and dancing to Tin Pan Alley classics like “I Got Rhythm” and “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight).” It’s a brilliant moment more than worth the price of admission.
This year’s show, titled “Voice of the People” (Ka Leo Kanaka), is nothing short of brilliant, thanks to kumu hula Patrick Makuakane, a true craftsman whose stories are played out beautifully in the movements of hands and hips.
There are three more performances this weekend — Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Palace of Fine Arts, located in the Marina District a short distance from the Golden Gate Bridge. Tickets are $35 and $45 and can be purchased at CityBoxOffice.com.