Free. Fantastic. Fun. Crowd-pleasing Ho‘ike will feature groups from Hilo, Taiwan, California and New Zealand

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If you weren’t among the fortunate few to snag coveted tickets to the three nights of Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition, you still have an opportunity to see first-rate hula and live music and dance from Polynesia and across the Pacific Basin.

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If you weren’t among the fortunate few to snag coveted tickets to the three nights of Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition, you still have an opportunity to see first-rate hula and live music and dance from Polynesia and across the Pacific Basin.

Wednesday night’s free Ho‘ike brings its own special brand of excitement to the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium. It starts at 6 p.m. with the entrance of the Merrie Monarch Royal Court, but those hoping to experience the entertainment plus the pomp and circumstance line up hours earlier outside the stadium.

There are no tickets, and admission to the show, as always, is on a first-come, first-served basis.

Continuing a tradition started in 1997, Hilo hula powerhouse Halau O Kekuhi will perform, under the direction of kumu hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole, daughter of Edith Kanaka‘ole.

“This year, we are doing a short set. However, it is an homage to Hi‘iakaikapoliopele as she comes into godhood here at Kilauea,” Kanaka‘ole said. “The mele that honor her personally are called kau, which characteristically is an accounting of her powers and limitations.

“Being born an egg, she had charge of all embryonic growth in the life cycle for the Pele family. All of the ritual mele in hula point to her being a seer and a prophet but still connected to the forest like the other hula goddesses Laka and Kapo. The actual veneration of these three gods are important to the well-being of our forest’s growth. It is the prime reason why we dance to offer hookupu or to give a gift of growth.”

Nonosina Polynesian Dance Studio of Anaheim, Calif., also will perform. Its director, Tiana Nonosina Liufau, is bringing a contingent of 66 dancers and musicians, including keiki, teens and adults, male and female. The troupe, founded in 1965 by Liufau’s grandmother, Estella Reid, performed at the 2012 Ho‘ike, dedicating its performance to award-winning kumu hula O’Brien Eselu, who died just before the Merrie Monarch that year.

“My grandma and him were really, really close,” Liufau said. “We’re extremely humbled that Aunty (Luana Kawelu, Merrie Monarch president) reached out to us to see if we wanted to come back again. Even though we’re predominately a Tahitian dance group, we’re well aware of how prestigious Merrie Monarch is. It’s the biggest competition festival in all Polynesia, so we’re really humbled and excited to come and share before it gets started with Miss Aloha Hula.”

Liufau said in Nonosina’s 2012 performance, “The whole cast could feel the energy, the mana.”

“Our dancers are well-versed in the history of the Merrie Monarch,” she explained. “My partner was actually Miss Aloha Hula in 2010 (Mahealani Mika Hirao-Solem of Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela). They knew exactly what the Merrie Monarch was and how it was started and its purpose. They were just so humbled and honored to be there on that stage. To step on that stage Ho‘ike night, a lot of them were humbled to tears. So, we can really feel that mana on that stage — a different kind of mana that we’ve felt before.”

Liufau said her company’s performance this year will be a nod to last year’s 50th anniversary of Nonosina.

“I wanted to highlight ‘the best of Nonosina’ throughout the past years, signature pieces that when people who know Nonosina think about us, they’ll be familiar with those pieces,” she said. “We have our own style of dance, of course, but music, as well, because we’ve produced a lot of music. And I’ll be ending it with a new piece that we’ve been working on this year.”

Performing for the first time are the nonprofit Hawaiian Cultural Center Taiwan and Hula Halau O Lehua Taiwan, under the direction of Ann Fan, a student of kumu hula Nani Lim Yap.

Fan, cultural adviser to the state of Hawaii office in Taipei, said Halau O Lehua is the first hula school in a Chinese community, adding the group’s contingent will include 50 people, mostly of high school age, who will fly 18 hours to come to Merrie Monarch.

“These students, they are like a seed,” she said. “We have to plant the seed, so education is important. We are coming to exchange our cultures. All these young people will see what they see and open their eyes. What they gain will be valuable.”

Fan described the group’s theme as “Light of Taiwan — Call of the Island: He Heahea Mai Ka Moku O Taiwan.”

“We think the Merrie Monarch is like an Olympic stage,” Fan said. “Our group, we want to share what we’ve learned and what we know, and we believe the Taiwan aboriginal culture is connected to the culture of all the Polynesian Islands. Therefore, we come to the Hawaiian Islands to look for our separated ancestors, relatives and friends.”

Fan said her group will highlight the past using traditional Chinese dance that she described as “graceful and elegant, the shadow of Hawaiian ‘auana dance;” the present, with indigenous Taiwanese (aboriginal) dance that she described as “powerful and spiritual, the shadow of Hawaiian kahiko dance;” and the future, with hula.

Fan’s passion for Hawaiian culture, music and dance led her in 2014 to publish a book in Chinese titled “The Hula Treasures of Hawaii.”

Maori performing arts from Aotearoa (New Zealand) also have proven to be a popular draw at Merrie Monarch. This year, the 2015 Te Matatini national champion kapa haka group Te Kapa Haka O Te Whanau A Apanui will perform, following the showstopping performance at the 2014 Ho‘ike by Maori troupe Te Waka Huia.

Under the direction of Rikirangi Gane, Hone Wharepapa, Tamati Waaka and Puao Whauwhau, the group’s website describes the troupe as “a tribal-centred, Maori performing arts group situated on the East Coast of the North Island of Aotearoa/New Zealand, within the tribal boundaries of Te Whanau, featuring songs and chants that ‘draw on tribal stories, heroes and customs for inspiration and hold us in good stead moving forward into the future.’”

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Te Kapa Haka O Te Whanau A Apanui also will perform in Sunday’s Ho‘olaule‘a at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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