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Creative Arts Center has ‘become this light’

Seabury students, alumni to mark center’s 10-year anniversary

Seabury Hall is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its ‘A‘ali‘ikuhonua Creative Arts Center, which has allowed the school’s performing arts program to expand as well as provided a venue for the local community. Photo courtesy of Seabury Hall

David Ward remembers the early days of Seabury Hall performances in the cafeteria, when they’d break down all the tables and chairs and get leftover “peanut butter and jelly between our toes” just to put on a show.

So when he got the chance to teach in the state-of-the-art ‘A’ali’ikuhonua Creative Arts Center in 2012, it changed everything, from the experience of the students to the work they were able to do.

“It’s just become this incredible facility that everybody at the school, parents, students, faculty, the community at large, benefit from,” said Ward, who came to work at Seabury in 1988 when the Department of Fine and Performing Arts was just starting out. “It’s really become this light for us. I like to think it has a life force of its own. It’s like a magnet — it draws people to it and so much creativity happens in that space.”

Current and former students, some of whom graduated long before the facility came to life, are combining their creative power Sept. 23-24 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the center, which has served as a performing arts hub for more than just Seabury.

“There’s no other theater on the island that is offering the size of this facility they have at the price that Seabury offers it to the community,” said Amelia Nelson Couture, a 2002 graduate who co-founded a contemporary dance company, Adaptations Dance Theater, and now teaches for the Alexander Academy of Performing Arts on Maui. “My ballet school, we could not do the productions that we do if we did not have access to this theater.”

Couture, who was born and raised on Maui, remembers watching her older brother perform in the Seabury cafeteria. She was in sixth grade when the school built a new gym and turned over the old gym to the performing arts program.

“That was the first year we had a theater space, so to us, that theater was a big deal,” Couture said.

The old gym was about the size of half a basketball court, which they turned into a black box theater, Ward said. It smelled like sweat, but it was better than the cafeteria. They put on their first show in the old gym, which came to be known as the Performing Arts Studio, in 1995.

Then, some generous donors in the community provided seed money for a new facility, and after about five years of planning, the school opened the 10,500-square-foot ‘A’ali’ikuhonua Creative Arts Center in September 2012.

“Everything just changed, because not only were we in this state-of-the-art theater, but just the experience of teaching, the experience of the students performing in a facility like that, the quality and the kind of work we could teach and do,” Ward said.

The building’s name refers to the ‘a’ali’i, “an indigenous shrub used in lei-making, a plant that adapts to many conditions and flexes easily in the fiercest winds,” Paul Wood, who founded Seabury’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts in the 1988-89 school year, wrote in an article on the center.

“Like the ‘a’ali’i, the building adapts to its site,” Wood wrote. “Its deliberately cow-barn-like contours give an Upcountry vibe. (The land formerly belonged to Haleakala Dairy.) Happily, barns have excellent ventilation, a quality that the CAC augments with louver systems, some of them temperature-automated. The glass-and-grating walls bring in light without creating a greenhouse effect.”

The facility serves not only as a theater but also as an assembly hall; a multipurpose classroom for chorus, music, drama and Hawaiian cultural lessons; and a gathering place for nonprofits and schools, according to Wood.

Ward, who was a dancer in Europe when Wood recruited him to work at Seabury, has seen the power that a performance and a purpose can have on kids.

When Seabury students first came back to school in fall 2020 after pandemic-induced lockdowns, Ward decided to put on a production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” He thought he’d only have 10 kids try out with many parents concerned about high-risk activities. More than 35 kids showed up, and he took everybody.

Their first performance in November was postponed to December because of COVID-19, then again to January. Ward told the kids they didn’t have to continue, “but they would not let go.”

“It became this very important thing for the kids to do,” he said. “It was like a club that got them out of their lonely bedrooms.”

They finally performed in February before a limited audience of 30, and Ward realized his job had become something bigger than just “have fun and teach kids about performing arts.”

“It was something that was socially and psychologically important to the kids,” Ward said. “The facility allowed us to be able to do this in a way that was safe. … The center stood out as a light at a time of importance to those children.”

Ward, who invited alumni to perform at the center’s opening in 2012, is bringing back former students to perform with 132 current students at the 10th anniversary event, dubbed “Past/Forward.”

One of them is Isaac Raz, a jazz pianist and composer in New York City who attended Seabury from 1983-1985. Raz grew up in New York and Israel, where he attended Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts his freshman year, and had moved many places with his family. But it was on Maui, where he took organ from Mark Kennedy, classical piano from Ruth Murata and jazz piano from David Bass at the Kaanapali hotel where his dad worked, that he developed his identity as a musician.

“I came into my identity, out of all the places that I was the most, at Seabury, because I was there during very key formative years,” Raz said. “As I said earlier, my childhood upbringing was marked by a lot of travel, a lot of moving, and the two years that I had at Seabury … they had the strongest influence on me coming up as a teenager.”

Raz said he’s happy to see the investment Seabury has put into its arts program. When people consider how much music engages a person’s language, reasoning, visual and emotional centers as well as their large and fine motor skills, it’s “the best full-body workout for your brain.”

“As an artist, there’s always an element of advocacy for the importance of arts in an academic setting,” Raz said. “When you look at how specifically music, which is what I can speak to, but the way it integrates all parts of the brain and the body and the spirit concurrently, there is no human endeavor that does it to the degree that performing on an instrument does.”

Couture, who will be performing an acrobatic rope act at the event, can also attest to the importance of her time at Seabury, where she took dance classes under Ward, Andre Morissette and Vanessa Cerrito.

“I think David and Andre and Vanessa influenced me a lot, especially in how they used modern dance as a story-telling art form,” Couture said. “That’s something that I really love. … I tend to go toward story rather than abstract.”

For Ward, the story he wants to tell at the Past/Forward celebration event is one of passing the torch, from the professionals who once graced the cafeteria and gym stages to the next generation now enjoying the Creative Arts Center.

“We wanted to honor them for building the foundation that we now stand on,” he said. “If it wasn’t for their grit, we would never have been where we are.”

For tickets or more information on the event, which will benefit Seabury’s financial aid program, visit SeaburyHall.org/arts.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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