“The Maile Sisters” – a set of ki`i hula made in 2005 by Leilehua and used in some of her performances. When performing, the ki`i are clothed. Usually they wear fresh pa`u la`i (ti leaf skirts) and lei maile, though they have other costumes as well. Clockwise from bottom left: Maile Kaluhea, Maile Pāhaka, Maile Lau Li`i, Maile Ha`iwale, Maile Lau Nui.
Leilehua found inspiration for this set of ki`i in the forms of the lava tree molds of Puna, and in the kā`ai of the ancient chiefs. Like both the lava tree molds and the Kā`ai, the ki`i are hollow. And all are containers. The trees held the bones of the trees, long dead. The kā`ai hold the bones of chiefs, long dead. The ki`i hold the bones of the living. And the mana of each remains in the containers.
The lava tree molds are filled with the spirit of the trees, becoming kā`ai of the forest. The `ie`ie of the forest is woven to make the kā`ai to hold the spirits of the chiefs. The ki`i, made of wood-pulp paper continues the cycle, forming kā`ai which are filled with the living bones and spirit of the dancers. Lava tree molds stand in the forest like dancers at ready, awaiting the beat of an eternal drum.
The Maile Sisters debuted in April of 2005 in a performance at the Wailoa Art Center in Hilo. They performed there weekly through the month of April, with a final performance on April 30 in preparation for Lei Day. They are have been featured featured regularly through 2007 at the Hilo Palace Theater.
Leilehua first learned about hula ki`i in 1993 at a workshop given by Mauliola Cook, Aunty Nona Beamer‘s protegé. Intrigued by the form, Leilehua continued to study hula ki`i on her own until Aunty Nona took Leilehua in hand and oversaw her studies.
In 2002, Leilehua participated in a hula ki`i video production which featured Aunty Nona: Hi`iaka, Lohi`au, and the Five Maile Sisters, based on a stage play by Helen Desha Beamer, Aunty Nona’s grandmother. Mauliola Cook wrote the screenplay and directed. The video was produced by the Story Book Theater of Kaua`i.
In 2004, Leilehua began teaching hula ki`i under the direction of Aunty Nona through Hawai`iana in Honomū, a cultural studies group.
According to Yamazaki Sensei, kumu to hālau in Hamamatsu and Shizoka, Leilehua was the first person to teach and perform hula ki`i in Japan, when Leilehua and her husband, Manu Josiah, traveled there to perform in 2006. Three of Leilehua’s ki`i are now in the personal collection of Yamazaki Sensei.
In 2012, Leilehua and three of her haumāna performed the hula kiʻi, Ka Huakaʻi o Hiʻiaka, at the Palace Theater in Hilo.