[I started this post long time ago and ran out of energy to finish it. Hula is an important topic to me and I wanted to make sure to say exactly what I mean to say and avoided all the faux-pas. It’s a difficult task since I’m an absolute beginner and have only my instinct to comment on these very fine performances. But it’s time to publish it and move on.]

Merrie Monarch – the most coveted hula dance competition, the pinnacle show of Hawaiian culture and spirit – took place earlier this April. In honor of King Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch and the great patron of Hawaiian arts, every year one week after Easter, the best halaus (hula schools) are invited to the town of Hilo on the Big Island to showcase their talents and their hard work. I didn’t get to follow it live this year, but the local channel KFVE has a dedicated web page and most of the festival program is available there.

The festival is a week-long with many public activities. The four performance and competition nights are in this order: Ho’ike (exhibition), Miss Aloha Hula (female solo), Group Hula Kahiko (ancient style hula), and Group Hula ‘Auana (modern style hula). Halaus spend months perfecting their dances and costumes to the smallest details. Many travel to important places mentioned in the songs to better understand the nuances, to feel the spirit and energy of the place and of a time past, to give prayers and ask for blessings.

In this post, I’ll cover only the Group Hula Kahiko, which is my favorite night. This year there were 29 performances on kahiko night: 11 kane (men) dances and 18 wahine (women) dances. Each performance usually has the following elements: an opening chant to announce one’s presence and to ask for permission to enter, the entrance, the main part of a mele oli (chant) and mele hula (accompanied by dance and instrument), and the exit. Often, the entrance and the exit are done as dances as well.

Kane:

Ke Kai o Kahiki: founded by the legendary OʻBrian Eselu, it has always been my favorite. Kumu (teacher) Eselu passed away last year right before Merrie Monarch, so this time was the halau’s first year under the guidance of their new kumu. Despite a couple of slips at the end, it is still a powerful performance with fast and sharp movements depicting stormy elements. To me, the men of Ke Kai o Kahiki are always the most beautiful, so fiercely graceful.

Academy of Hawaii Arts: Kumu Mark Kealii Ho’omalu has such a distinct style of chanting that it was the easiest one for me recognize when i first started learning hula. Extremely creative, always tradition-breaking, he has the talents and the knowledge to back it up. Plenty of purists would cringe – He wears wrap-around mirror sunglasses even when he’s on stage in traditional kumu clothes – but I have lots of respect, and always enjoy the originality of the dance movements and the costume. It’s not often hard to find someone who embraces his style; reaction ranges from downright rejection to tacit approval, but his halau is still the one that provokes the most anticipation before and discussion after.

 

Wahine: This year, my favorite halau Ke’alaokamaile didn’t compete as kumu Keli’i Reichel, one of my favorite artists, was busy being among the judges.

Hālau I Ka Wēkiu danced a mele inoa (name chant) of King Kalākaua, one of the many performances this year paying tribute to the Merrie Monarch. The 6 girls dancing are the first graduating class from the halau (which means now they can become kumu hula if they want to). This is their last time dancing together; can’t imagine how emotional that must have been, and they delivered the most elegant chanting and dancing of the night. Unfortunately no youtube video is available to embed, but you can watch the performance here.

It is quite difficult to pick the second wahine performance from so many excellent ones to include in this post. I’m gonna go with Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana O Leināʻala. Love their chanting, and it’s also a great example of dancing hula with instruments (the ipu in this case), which is not very known to the casual watchers of entertainment-oriented hula shows.

For photos, you can check out the official Merrie Monarch website linked above or the Star-Advertiser gallery.

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