Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 11:22 p.m., Thursday, April 20, 2006

Merrie Monarch: A 'grounded' Miss Aloha Hula competition

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Features Editor

HILO, Hawai'i — It's the year of the hula noho, the kneeling hula, the squat-walking hula, the-leaning-back-until-your-hair-sweeps-the-stage hula, the-leaning-over-until-it-seems-impossible-that-you'll-stay-upright hula. At least, that's the way it seemed during the kahiko portion of the 43d annual Merrie Monarch Festival Miss Aloha Hula competition Thursday night.

Of the first 10 Miss Aloha Hula candidates, six spent much of their time close to the ground, not only dancing while seated but also executing deep squatting and bending moves, drawing screams of admiration from a hula-savvy crowd that knows just what it takes to perform these moves — let alone to perform them with breath left over for trilling an 'oli.

After the athleticism, breath control and general power exhibited by the 16 women competitors, it's difficult to imagine what borders are left to cross. How can you best performances like that of Makalani Franco-Francis of Maui's Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka? She chanted so strongly every word was audible, clicked 'ili'ili stones all the while to punctuate the moves of the dance and spent three-quarters of her time on stage on her knees, working from her stomach muscles instead of her feet — a trifecta of difficulty all but the most experienced hula dancers would quail to attempt.

Even in this most conservative of hula environments, where the judges are believed to frown on innovation, every performance illustrated how far hula has come from the mid-20th century days when hapa-haole ditties prevailed and a fresh grass skirt was the heighth of autenticity. In the depth of research that accompanies the learning of a dance, the skill of contemporary chant-writing, developments in costuming, instrument construction, lei artistry and every other art and craft attendant on a hula performance, the sophistication is startling. Kumu hula will tell you much of this modern-day work is inspired by the ancients — not just through such empirical means as newly translated Hawaiian language materials, but also in more mystical forms, through ideas that appear in dreams, during meditations or visits to historic places.

As I sit here during intermission, with people around me handicapping the competition, talking over who appears to them to have winner potential, I, too, am thinking about what makes a great hula performance. And it's not just technique or beautiful adornments or a good teacher — every one of the competitors here has those. It is the abillity to inhabit the story, to put on the characters and the action like a new skin. Of the dancers we've seen Thursday night, perhaps two were able to remain within the sacred confines of the mo'olelo for the entirety of their performance. These seemed to forget — and caused the viewer to forget — that it is a performance, an artificial construct, on a stage with annoying lights and photographers buzzing around and people who are rude enough to use cell phones while the show is on.

When this happens, when the dancer is serving the story, magic happens. And it's worth waiting for.

• • •

Back down to earth, a few things to report:

If you were watching on television, you may have noticed closed-captioning for the Merrie Monarch hula competition for the first time. It's now required by law. The closed-captioning is being handled for KITV by a firm in Maryland, which must be having an interesting time of it. All the scripted material was sent to them, but there is a great deal of ad-libbing by the announcers and commentators during Merrie Monarch, and it must be a challenge for a Mainland transcription expert to make sense of all those Hawaiian words and names. By the way, the law doesn't require that Hawaiian be translated, so viewers are on their own.

• • •

Don't know if the TV audience got this, but Kimo Kahoano gave the audience in the stadium quite a tongue-lashing about the use of cell phones after he noticed someone chattering away on camera during the first performance. He reminded everyone sitting in the area behind the stage that they are within camera range and then scolded, "After this girl came all the way from Texas, she is going to see you doing your cell phone trip while she is performing." The audience cheered.