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Window of opportunity: Many talented halau seeking 2017 Merrie Monarch Festival titles

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Hula is much more than a dance. King David Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch, called it “the language of the heart, and therefore, the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”

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Hula is much more than a dance. King David Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch, called it “the language of the heart, and therefore, the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”

Hula also is the medium for master storytellers known as kumu hula. As such, the 54th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival and its centerpiece three-night hula competition will weave numerous storylines into an exciting resolution in the wee hours of Sunday morning, April 23, with the awarding of the traditional hula hardware to the kumu whose storytelling through dance the judges found most enthralling.

Twenty-three halau are competing in this year’s “Super Bowl of Hula,” with 20 wahine groups and nine kane groups dancing in Friday night’s group hula kahiko (ancient hula) competition and Saturday night’s group hula ‘auana (modern hula) competition.

Ten young women also will compete Thursday evening for Miss Aloha Hula, hula’s preeminent title for a solo dancer.

One of the major plotlines going into this year’s competition is opportunity. The 2016 overall and kane (men’s) overall winners, Halau Na Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu, under the direction kumu hula Sonny Ching and Lopaka Igarta-De Vera, will sit out this year’s dance. So will Hilo’s Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, under the direction of kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho, who took the 2016 wahine (women’s) overall title.

It would be difficult to pick a clear favorite for the prestigious overall title, but a number of halau figure prominently in the conversation.

“We have so many wonderful halau in the Merrie Monarch this year,” Luana Kawelu, the festival’s president, observed.

Among returning halau creating a buzz are Halau I Ka Wekiu, under the direction of na kumu hula Karl Veto Baker and Michael Casupang, and Ka Pa Hula O Kauanoe O Wa‘ahila, under the direction of kumu hula Maelia Loebenstein Carter.

Baker and Casupang’s halau won a clean sweep in 2012, taking the men’s kahiko and ‘auana, as well as the overall title. They also were the overall winners in 2007.

Loebenstein Carter, the scion of one of hula’s greatest families and Miss Aloha Hula 1993, provided expert commentary for the live televised broadcast of the Merrie Monarch the past few years, but returns with her wahine to the competition with the halau founded by her grandmother, the legendary Mae Ulalia Long Loebenstein.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing them again,” Kawelu said of Ka Pa Hula O Kauanoe O Wa‘ahila.

The kane of Hilo’s Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani have knocked on the door the past several years, getting its name called during Saturday night’s awards ceremony the past four years. Last year, kumu hula Nahoku Gaspang’s men grabbed everyone’s attention, finishing first in kahiko, second in ‘auana, second in kane overall and third in the overall judging.

Gaspang, who is bringing men and women this year, wouldn’t make a prediction but said her experienced kane group is “always ready.”

Other halau that know what it’s like to win it all at Merrie Monarch include Kawaili‘ula, under the direction of Chinky Mahoe, and Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela, under the direction of na kumu hula Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o and Kunewa Mook. Both are perennial contenders, with Kawaili‘ula winning it all in 2013 and Kamuela in 2008.

Kekai O Kahiki won kane overall titles three consecutive times from 2009-11 and the overall title in 2010. The halau’s beloved kumu, O’Brian Eselu, died just prior to the Merrie Monarch in 2012, but the halau is still strong under kumu hula La‘akea Perry.

The last time a wahine troupe has won the Merrie Monarch’s overall title was in 2011, when Maui’s Halau Keʻalaokamaile captured hula’s most coveted award. Its kumu hula, Hawaiian entertainment superstar Keali‘i Reichel, returns to the festival this year as a judge. Joining him as stage-side arbiters are Ainsley Halemanu, Lahela Ka‘aihue, Pualani Kanahele Etua Lopes, Pi‘ilani Lua and Kalena Silva.

Possible contenders among the wahine include Ka La ‘Onohi Mai O Ha‘eha‘e under the direction of na kumu hula Tracie and Keawe Lopes, who placed third in ‘auana and fifth in kahiko last year, finishing runner-up in wahine overall to Halau Ka Ua O Kani Lehua, and Halau Manaola under the direction of kumu hula Nani Lim Yap, who surprised many by placing second in kahiko and third in wahile overall.

Lim Yap, formerly co-kumu of Halau Na Lei O Kaholoku with sister, Leialoha Lim Amina, dominated the wahine group competition in the mid-2000s, winning the wahine overall titles from 2004-06 and the wahine kahiko titles in 2004 and 2005.

Unlike in past years, there are no halau from beyond Hawaii entered in this year’s competition. Most conspicuously absent is Academy of Hawaiian Arts. The Oakland, Calif., halau and its iconoclastic kumu hula, Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu, are always audience favorites, although his version of ancient chants sometimes ruffles the feathers of traditionalists.

As always, this year’s celebration of hula will be partially defined by those who have passed in the prior year. Four individuals, in particular, will be remembered by those in attendance.

Leiana Long Woodside, kumu hula, dancer and retired curator for Queen Emma Summer Palace, died Jan. 25, 2016, at 89. The Maui native was the sister of the late kumu hula Mae Ulalia Loebenstein and mother of kumu hula Hokulani Holt-Padilla and 1994 Miss Aloha Hula candidate Ulalia Woodside. Her grandson, Lono Padilla is co-kumu hula with Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV of Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua, whose wahine are competing in this year’s Merrie Monarch, and her grandniece is kumu hula Maelia Loebenstein Carter.

Hokulani DeRego, co-kumu hula with husband, Larry DeRego, of Halau Hula ‘O Hokulani, died July 1 at 57. Their halau graced the Merrie Monarch stage numerous times, most recently in 2014. She taught hula to thousands of students in Hawaii and beyond, in the continental U.S., Japan, New Zealand and Europe, and taught Hawaiiana in Hawaii’s public schools.

Joan S. Lindsey, longtime kumu hula and Merrie Monarch judge, died Oct. 15 at 87, just two days after teaching her last hula class. “Aunty Joanie” was a dancer for Hawaii’s songbird, Lena Machado. She first studied hula under her aunt, Caroline Peters Tuck, continued her studies with Lena Guerrero and earned her ‘uniki from Lokalia Montgomery. She taught hula for 67 years, starting in 1949. Although invited many times to teach hula in Japan, she opted to teach exclusively in Hawaii.

And Al Bacarse, kumu hula, dancer and teacher of Hawaiian studies and the English and Japanese language, died Dec. 20 at 77. He entertained in Waikiki showrooms and was an original dancer when the Polynesian Cultural Center opened on Oahu’s North Shore in 1963. His Halau Ka Ua Kilihune made several Merrie Monarch appearances, and he taught hula in Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Mexico and Holland.

As always, Merrie Monarch week kicks off today with Ho‘olaule‘a, a free, all-day celebration of hula and Polynesian dance starting at 9 a.m. at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

For many, the highlight of the day will be the noon appearance of Lum Ho’s Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua. Despite the midday heat, their performances packed at least 2,000 people into the Manono Street venue in 2014 and 2015. Other halau on the bill are: Na Lei Liko O Ola‘a, kumu hula Kimo Kekua; Hula Halau Ke ‘Olu Makani O Mauna Loa, kumu hula Meleana Manuel; Halau Na Pua O Uluhaimalama, kumu hula Emery Aceret; Halau Na Lei Hiwahiwa ‘O Ku‘ualoha, kumu hula Sammye Ku‘ualoha Young; Lori Lei’s Hula Studio and Wai‘ohinu Hula Studio, kumu hula Lori Lei Shirakawa; Halau O Kekuhi Keiki, kumu hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole and ‘Ohana; and Halau E Hulali Mai I Ka La, na kumu hula Chrissy Kama-Henriques and Leilani Taka-Keanaaina.

Continuing a tradition started in 1997, Halau O Kekuhi will be the featured attraction at Wednesday night’s free Ho‘ike.

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A line forms early in the morning at Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium for admission to the popular exhibition program featuring dances from throughout the Pacific Basin. Also performing are: Na ‘Ohana O Kahikilaulani O Mexico, a troupe affiliated with Hilo’s Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani; Kona’s Halau Kala‘akeakauikawekiu under the direction of kumu hula Aloha Victor; and Parangal Dance Company, a San Francisco-based group performing traditional native Philippine dance.

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

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