The term Hula Ki`i covers a wide variety of dramatic techniques, ranging from dancers portraying images (ki`i) of gods, to puppets being manipulated as if they were dancing. The style of hula ki`i preserved in the Beamer family uses small hand puppets which are manipulated by a dancer.
At the coronation of King David Kalākaua, Kumu Hula Ehu Keohohina presented four hula ki`i. Nathaniel Emerson received four ki`i from a kumu hula who had inherited them from his brother. The kumu hula stated that his brother “gave them to me with these words, ‘take care of these things, and when the time comes, after my death, that the king wants you to perform before him, be ready to fulfill his desire.’ ” Emerson states that these ki`i were used in performances before Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) and his queen Kalama, and “his successors since then down to the times of Kalākaua. At the so-called ‘jubilee,’ the anniversary of Kalākaua’s fiftieth birthday, these marionettes were very much in evidence.”
The heads of these ki`i were crafted of a soft wood, kukui or wiliwili, covered with a hairy broad-cloth-based wig, and decorated to depict the characters they portrayed. They were about one third life-size, and clothed in loose gowns which
allowed the operator to place his or her hands under the clothing and manipulate the body and loosely-jointed arms. A hula ki`i performance was accompanied by ho`opa`a (chanters) who played the ipu heke.
Dramatic interpretations of traditional stories, buffoonery, and audience interaction were features of the performances. The ki`i also may have performed a role similar to that of the court jester of Europe, dramatizing and satirizing the court with more license than that allowed to a human.
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