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Hula halau from around Hawaii navigate pandemic challenges in return to Merrie Monarch Festival

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Quinn Aquino and the other members of the halau practiced.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Quinn Aquino and the other members of the halau practiced.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The men of Ke Kai o Kahiki, led by kumu La‘akea Perry, rehearsed earlier this month at Lanikuhonua in Ko Olina for this year’s Merrie Monarch competition in Hilo.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The men of Ke Kai o Kahiki, led by kumu La‘akea Perry, rehearsed earlier this month at Lanikuhonua in Ko Olina for this year’s Merrie Monarch competition in Hilo.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Maka‘ala Perry, competing this year for Miss Aloha Hula, practiced earlier this month with her father and kumu, La‘akea Perry, at Lanikuhonua in Ko Olina.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Maka‘ala Perry, competing this year for Miss Aloha Hula, practiced earlier this month with her father and kumu, La‘akea Perry, at Lanikuhonua in Ko Olina.

The stage is up at Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium, and the halau are in Hilo for their isolation period as they prepare for the esteemed Merrie Monarch competition.

The hula competition unfurls this week, with rigid safety protocols in place due to the pandemic, and dancers scheduled to compete Thursday, Friday and Saturday before judges — this time with no live audience. The competition will then be broadcast on KFVE from July 1 to 3, when winners will be announced.

“I am excited and so happy to see all the dancers,” said festival president Luana Kawelu. “It’s wonderful to see all the dancers and to see the passion, that they want to be here and they want to dance. They want to share their hula again.”

To move forward despite all of the challenges this year is worth it, she said, not only to the organization and Hilo, but to all the kumu hula and halau that wanted to take to the stage again after last year’s competition, which would have been the 57th, was canceled.

Fifteen halau from Kauai, Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island, and seven Miss Aloha Hula soloists, will participate in this competition, which was pushed from April to this week.

Among them are many returning, top-placing halau, including Ke Kai o Kahiki of Waianae and Halau Hi‘iaka­inamakalehua of Kalihi, as well as Halau Hula Ke ‘Olu Makani o Mauna Loa of Hawaii island, competing for the first time.

For La‘akea Perry, kumu hula of Ke Kai o Kahiki, returning to Merrie Monarch this year was natural.

“We committed to Merrie Monarch for 2020, so when COVID hit we didn’t retract our commitment,” said Perry. “We were determined to make sure that we get there, and we would work around any circumstances that Merrie Monarch has to abide by.”

This year is special to Perry because the halau will perform mele honoring his late kumu, O’Brian Eselu, and the halau he founded, Na Wai ‘Eha o Puna.

For kahiko night the halau will perform “He Aloha no na Pua,” the same hula Na Wai ‘Eha o Puna did at its first Merrie Monarch in 1979, just a year after its founding. It is dedicated to the halau’s beloved founders Eselu and Thaddeus Wilson.

For auana the halau will perform to mele composed by Eselu honoring Lanikuhonua, where they practice hula, as well as its kahu, Auntie Nettie Tiffany.

“We pay tribute to Lanikuhonua, the place that has given us so much, allowed us to do hula and gather as a halau,” Perry said. “Lanikuhonua is so beautiful, it’s easy to be inspired.”

Eselu worked on the choreography from his hospital bed before he died in 2012, and it was his wish that the dance be put together. The mele for the entrance is composed by Eselu, based on handwritten notes he exchanged with Auntie Malia Craver.

It will be performed for the first time at this Merrie Monarch competition.

These are mele, originally planned for 2020, which they will perform this year in honor of cherished mentors past and present, and to the halau’s lineage and roots.

Also, Perry’s daughter, Maka‘ala Kahikinaokalalani Victoria Perry, is competing in Miss Aloha Hula for the first time — a first for the halau.

The halau has felt the impact of the pandemic personally and professionally. About half of Perry’s halau dropped out, and he is bringing only six dancers this year, down from the 11 planning to participate last year.

One of his dancers lost his father to COVID-19 earlier this year, Perry said, but the dancer wanted to continue and to dedicate the performance to his father.

Some of the other dancers who are no longer with the halau lost their jobs, had changing life situations or ended up moving to the mainland and could not continue.

Practicing via Zoom just did not work, he said, so the group waited for restrictions to ease in order to rehearse.

It has been a trying year, he said, but the halau plans to persevere and not let COVID deter it from getting back to hula. Perry gives his dancers credit for sticking it out. They have all been vaccinated.

“We’re not going to let COVID beat us,” he said. “We’re going to persevere. We’re very determined.”

Everything — from staging to rehearsing — presented a challenge this year, but it was important to continue, according to kumu Ke‘ano Ka‘upu of Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua, which has won three Miss Aloha Hula titles.

This year he is able to bring only 10 wahine dancers and seven kane dancers, fewer than usual. But hula must continue.

“We gotta keep it alive,” Ka‘upu said. “What I try to teach my students, if you say you’re going to do something, you move heaven and earth to do it unless absolutely impossible. My mother and kumu hula taught me that.”

Although the struggles have been much more intense, it is just as exciting, he said.

For kahiko the wahine will perform a Hi‘iaka piece as she prepares to go to battle with the moo at Panaewa, with a theme of healing, focus and determination, similar to what the halau has been through this year. For auana the kane will dance to “E Kiss Kaua,” a reminder of how important lightheartedness and fun is to life.

“The intention was simply to have fun so everything is not so heavy,” Ka‘upu said. “Even in the title it told us, one of the things in our culture we have not been able to practice throughout this whole year was a simple practice of greeting with a kiss.”

It is intended to uplift the viewers and offer them something to look forward to.

One of the greatest challenges this year is that dancers will be competing without the live audience that usually packs the stadium, with fans sitting shoulder to shoulder.

The stage has also been moved to the center of the stadium, facing makai, due to the angle of the sun during the summer.

Usually, Merrie Monarch is a weeklong festival starting Easter Sunday in April. This year there will be no free Hoike performance, parade or in-person craft fair.

All halau participants, festival staff, as well as the television production crew have agreed to guidelines including multiple COVID-19 tests, a five-day isolation period prior to entering the competition venue for the first time, and daily screenings.

A team from The Queen’s Health Systems provided guidance on safety protocols, in partnership with North Hawaii Community Hospital and Diagnostic Laboratory Services, which will do the testing.

“The Merrie Monarch is so important. It is iconic and symbolic for Hawaii on the world stage,” said Dr. Gerard Akaka, vice president for Native Hawaiian Affairs & Clinical Support at Queen’s. “We have to do things well and in the best possible way even if it is not easy to do so. The level of rigor is very high. Kudos to the kumu and the halau because they’re resilient. They innovated and figured out ways to overcome the barriers as much as possible.”

LIST OF PARTICIPATING HALAU*

>> Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua, Kalihi Kai (Oahu)

>> Halau Hula ‘o Napunaheleonapua, Kaneohe (Oahu)

>> Halau Hula Ke ‘Olu Makani o Mauna Loa, Volcano (Hawaii)

>> Halau Hula Olana, Pearl City (Oahu)

>> Halau i ka Wekiu, Pauoa (Oahu)

>> Halau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leina‘ala, Kalaheo (Kauai)

>> Halau Ka Liko Pua o Kalaniakea, Heeia (Oahu)

>> Halau Kala‘akeakauikawekiu, Kailua-Kona (Hawaii)

>> Halau Kekuaokala‘au‘ala‘iliahi, Wailuku (Maui)

>> Halau Keolakapuokalani, Aliamanu and Nanakuli (Oahu)

>> Halau o ka Hanu Lehua, Waikapu (Maui)

>> Ka La ‘Onohi Mai o Ha‘eha‘e, Kaneohe (Oahu)

>> Kawai‘ulaokala, Kalihi (Oahu)

>> Kawaili‘ula, Kailua and Manoa (Oahu)

>> Ke Kai o Kahiki, Waianae (Oahu)

* Eleven wahine and eight kane groups will compete in kahiko and auana.

MERRIE MONARCH 2021

>> Televised on K5 starting at 6 p.m. July 1 (Miss Aloha Hula), July 2 (kahiko), and July 3 (auana).

>> Also streamed free online at hawaiinewsnow.com/merriemonarch starting at 6 p.m. July 1-3 and on the app.

>> Merrie Monarch T-shirts and totes are available for purchase at merriemonarch.com/shop. Programs are available by calling the Merrie Monarch office at 935-9168.

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