‘Amazing’ hula ready for prime time

  • Luana Kawelu

The dancing is pau at the 2021 Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition, and all that’s left is the delayed broadcast of the event Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Luana Kawelu, the festival’s president, said the quality of hula the lucky few in the stadium last week witnessed was “amazing.”

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“I could see the love and the passion that they have for the hula to go through all what they had to do to perform on that stage for the people,” Kawelu said Tuesday. “Even the feedback from the judges, you know. I got calls — and they said they were so proud of those dancers.”

Kawelu said that while a live audience provides a certain ambiance, the atmosphere in the stadium was more than the sum of the individuals inside.

“When I thanked the judges personally after the competition, I told them that although we didn’t have an audience, we had our kupuna there with us, like (hula master) Uncle George (Na‘ope) and my mom (Dot Thompson, the hula competition’s founder), and those who helped years ago,” she said. “Some of them are in their 80s and 90s and are still alive. They were all with us, and you could feel them. In fact, when I told them that, the judges told me, ‘Oh, aunty, we get chicken skin.’

“But that’s how we felt. We’re being watched by those who have come before us.”

“And some of the kumu told me you’d think it would be deflating, but it brought into focus the purpose of why they’re here — and that was the hula,” added Kathy Kawelu, Luana Kawelu’s daughter and right hand. “So everything else, all of the outside factors, just kind of disappeared, and they were on that stage performing the hula. So all of the energy could be focused there — on the ‘oli (chant), on the mele (music), on the footwork. It was just the hula.

“It brought the hula to the fore in a way that, I think, some of them weren’t expecting.”

Everyone authorized to enter the stadium had to go into a bubble and be subjected to rigorous COVID-19 testing to ensure the safety of all involved. That includes halau, judges, TV crew, Merrie Monarch staff and the accountants who tabulate the results — which will be announced at the end of Thursday evening’s broadcast for Miss Aloha Hula, and at the end Saturday evening’s broadcast for group kahiko, ‘auana and overall scores.

Luana Kawelu said that out of about 350 people tested, only two tested positive. The two were retested and went into isolation, so they did not come to the stadium.

No halau were disqualified from performing, and neither of the alternate judges — who were there as a contingency measure — were forced into service.

For the first time, the music danced to in hula ‘auana was prerecorded instead of played by live musicians in a stage-side pit. Kumu hula were able to choose their own musicians, but all the music was recorded in two-day sessions in Honolulu supervised by Na Hoku Hanohano award winners Shawn Pimental, Zachary Lum and Chad Takatsugi.

“It was different, because (the sound crew) didn’t have to compensate for the sound and the effect of the audience in there. It went off without a hitch, no glitches in the music or anything,” Kathy Kawelu said.

The three evenings of dance were conducted as covert operations — with access, results and everything in-between strictly on a need-to-know basis. Halau weren’t informed of their results, although the TV crew was provided them under embargoed disclosure for announcement at the end of Miss Aloha Hula and the group competition.

That, of course, is a different dynamic than the usual electric atmosphere within the stadium at the end of Thursday and Saturday evenings, when the dancers, kumu and the audience sit on the edges of their seats in anticipation of the winners being announced.

“For me, I think that was just a factor of the logistics this year,” Kathy Kawelu said. “We didn’t have the halau staying in the stadium to the end. Once they performed, they left. So really, there was no building up of energy from the various halau that were in the running. I think that was the difference. Once they competed, once they danced, they got their stuff, and they were moving on. So you didn’t have anybody in the stadium in the end, other than the last halau to perform.

“On the TV side, you’re going to miss out on the pan to the halau and that celebration. Clearly, that’s not going to be there. But you’ll have the announcement of the first-place winner, the second, third, fourth, fifth. And then, they’ll show the highlight of that performance.”

“And that’s why we gave them the results, and we swore them to secrecy,” Luana Kawelu concluded. “And we hope it works out.”

Miss Aloha Thursday will be broadcast Thursday evening, group hula kahiko on Friday evening, and group hula ‘auana on Saturday evening. The broadcasts start at 6 p.m. each night on KFVE-TV (K5) with an online stream link at merriemonarch.com.

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There will be encore presentations with times and dates available on merriemonarch.com.

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

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