With the coronavirus likely to stick around for the near future, the Merrie Monarch Festival’s organizing committee is working to develop a 2021 event without a live audience in Hilo.
The prestigious, weeklong hula competition and cultural festival that was scheduled for mid-April this year was canceled because of the pandemic.
“Having to cancel (the 2020) event was a very hard decision but one we knew was necessary for the health and safety of our beloved dancers, kumu, judges and hula community overall,” said Merrie Monarch Festival President Luana Kawelu in an announcement posted Saturday on the event’s Facebook page.
“Health and safety is still our number one concern and therefore, we have made the decision that if the festival is held, there will be no live audience.”
Ticket requests are usually accepted starting in December, but none will be accepted for the 2021 event.
“We need to get the word out to everyone who might be gearing up to send in requests,” said Kathy Kawelu, Luana Kawelu’s daughter, in the announcement. “We will not be accepting ticket requests for Merrie Monarch 2021. Please do not send ticket requests and payment as you might normally do.”
Although audiences will not be a part of next year’s Merrie Monarch Festival, the organizing committee “is diligently working to develop a 2021 event that will allow for a celebration of hula that aligns with recommended COVID-19 protocols and guidelines,” the announcement said, without providing details.
The decision to keep spectators away wasn’t a surprise for Shelsea Ai, a kumu hula for the Halau Hula Olana of Pearl City. She said Luana Kawelu updated her in September on the prospects for holding the next year’s Merrie Monarch Festival. The idea of pushing the festival to June was floated as one possibility.
Usually at this time of the year, hula dancers would be fundraising and in the middle of in-person practices for Merrie Monarch, Ai said.
“A lot of what the girls would be doing now is heavily working on building their muscles,” she said. “That’s what we would be doing right now: running through our basics, always cleaning them up, always making sure that we get rid of our bad habits.”
Without a guarantee just yet that the festival will happen, in part because Hawaii island Mayor-elect Mitch Roth would have to approve the event, Ai said she will continue to run hula classes less as training sessions and more as healing sessions, which she has been doing over the past few months.
“Now the thing that I tell my students is: Now we’re just dancing for fun,” she said. “The thing that I tell them to focus on is the spirit of dance … . We’ve been working more on that kind of personal development, on that connection to storytelling.”
Ai suspended her hula classes shortly after the cancellation of this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival, but in August resumed teaching, although online via Zoom.
She sometimes has practice with groups of up to 10 people, as permitted by Honolulu’s tiered reopening strategy.
Ai said if the festival does take place — even without an audience and with COVID-19 restrictions in place — she’ll be there with her dancers.
Ai has attended the Merrie Monarch Festival for over 30 years and first competed in 1997. She and her parents, renowned kumu hula Olana and Howard Ai, run Halau Hula Olana, which has been represented in the festival since 1988.