This month, Hawaiian dance artist Christopher Morgan brings his company’s piece Native Intelligence/Innate Intelligence to On the Boards. The dance piece incorporates Hawaiian chant and percussion, cello, and multimedia scenic design, together with dance, exploring genetics through the metaphor of a lei as DNA.
To create this multidisciplinary piece, Morgan has emphasized collaboration. “Building trust by working on in depth communication, sharing authorship of the work while constantly listening for when clear decision making is needed has been the foundation of making this work,” he said. “This kind of community building takes time, which requires financial resources that I’ve only enjoyed for part of my career.”
Morgan persuaded the artistic team to cross-train and experience each other’s art forms. “Getting these multidisciplinary elements into the work required all of the collaborators to participate in writing exercises,” he elaborated. “Making lei, Hula classes with cultural consultant Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane, improvisation classes with dance collaborator Matthew Cumbie, breath and vocal work with an acting coach, lighting and projection workshops with our design team, and so much more.”
To describe this creative process, Morgan draws upon metaphors from nature. “I like to think of collaboration as a spiral where all of the collaborators are part of a dynamic circle, like a cyclone whose momentum thrusts different leaders or ideas up in the spiral to help guide and shape the process,” he said. “Centrifuge naturally propels another voice towards the eye of the spiral to change the leadership guiding the group.”
He aims for a balance shared authorship and decision-making leadership. “A clear moment of this shared authorship is the transitions and logistics of incorporating the lei making into the performance,” Morgan described. “Every single collaborator has had an idea that has shaped the delicate transitions of bringing the fabric onstage, weaving it, moving it, connecting it to the set and how we treat the lei.”
All this stems from a commitment by the artistic team of Christopher K. Morgan & Artists (CKM&A) to enact racial and social justice. “Central to our equity work is starting with the human dignity by getting to know each person on the team, including when we arrive in a new space and conduct a cast and crew huddle to make sure we all know one another,” Morgan relayed. “From that foundation, the work is made manifest in transparent budgeting processes, compensating the unseen labor of all of the collaborators, ensuring there are no disparities in pay across artistic disciplines or any personal identifiers, avoiding the infamous ‘10 out of 12’ technical rehearsal schedules as much as possible, providing adequate breaks, being extremely flexible with collaborators outside employment, honoring space and time for family life, and more.”
Morgan admits that the biggest challenge to this work is adequate funding. “Doing the work thoughtfully requires time, care, and compensation,” he said.
In addition to this commitment, CKM&A was founded in 2011 to demystify contemporary dance through community dialogue, engagement activities, and online content. “I have long worried that contemporary dance has a limited audience because many potential audience members feel they don’t understand the work,” Morgan explained. “To that end, CKM&A creates micro documentaries that give insight into the works we create to help potential audiences’ understanding of the work.”
The company engages in additional dramaturgical work, as well. “We regularly incorporate welcome remarks and carefully facilitated post show discussions at performances to provide additional context for audiences,” he said. “I’ve learned that addressing some of the most common questions about a dance through these various approaches creates increased audience comfort. I believe that when audiences feel comfortable, they can then be led into heightened parts of a performance that might require suspending their disbelief and some amount of bravery.”
These are concerns that have developed steadily since Morgan’s earliest exposure to Hula and other dances of Polynesia that he engaged in with his family beginning at age three. “My mother’s cousins taught my siblings and I these dances and produced a Polynesian revue that we performed in,” he remembered. “Though I only did this with my family until I turned seven, these experiences made strong impressions on me sparking my desire to reconnect with the hula and the research journey I’ve been on since 2009.”
That was the year when, after studying western dance forms, Morgan reconnected to his Hawaiian roots. “Apart from Hula, in my senior year of high school I started the western dance forms of ballet, modern, and jazz that became the bulk of my work as a performer for many years,” he said. “Throughout my dance career choreographers would source movement from dancers, I found that I frequently created movement that drew from muscle memories I had of the Hula I danced as a child.”
In 2009, he had the opportunity to study the work of his late cousin Kumu Hula John Ka’imikaua. “The time spent studying with his halau was transformative, and is central to the creation of Pōhaku and Native Intelligence/Innate Intelligence,” Morgan said. “As I began to make my own work, I needed a stronger intellectual and spiritual understanding of these movements that I had learned as a child through mimicry.”
That initial journey deepened in 2014 when Morgan began creating his 2016 work Pōhaku. “With Hula, I’m captivated by the meaning of each gesture, the connection to the natural elements, and the form’s storytelling,” he shared. “With the help of several long-time movement collaborators I clarified that much of my contemporary movement is steeped in key Hula movements, particularly the undulation of the pelvis in the hula movement Ka’o and the use of gesture in my movement vocabulary.”
But that’s not all Morgan learned. “I became clearer that my innate desire to tell stories through dance is deeply rooted in Hula,” he said. “I learned I have a unique role as a bridge builder between institutions and networks on the continent and other Hawaiian and Native artists. Most significantly has been a journey of self-discovery that has empowered my reclamation as a Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian, a self-identifier that sometimes felt unclear having grown up away from the land of my ancestors.”
Now Morgan is sharing his knowledge more widely, having been nominated by President Joseph R. Biden and confirmed by Congress on March 15, 2022, to be a member of the National Council on the Arts, and he just returned from the 209th meeting of the National Council on the Arts that took place on March 31, 2023. “This service has been inspiring and humbling,” Morgan said. “To be at the table as the future of federal arts funding is discussed, to read and vote on panel recommendations for National Endowment for the Arts grants funding, and to make recommendations to the White House for the President’s Medal on the Arts is something I never dreamed I would be privy to.”
This experience was revelatory for Morgan. “My biggest takeaway thus far is awe over the incredible amount of work that the staff at the National Endowment for the Arts does to get as much funding and opportunity to arts organizations and artists as they can,” he marveled. “The staff at the NEA are incredibly dedicated and hard working.” And now, Morgan will contribute to that hard work while also continuing to share his original work throughout the U.S.
Native Intelligence/ Innate Intelligence runs from April 13 to 16 at On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, Seattle.