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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 9:53 p.m., Saturday, April 22, 2006

Too much hula? No way

By Wanda Adams
Assistant Features Editor

EDITH KANAKA'OLE STADIUM, Hilo, Hawai'i — Hula'd out? I thought I was until I got here last night and encountered the scent of plumeria and the looks on the dancers' faces and the ideas that still have the capacity to surprise and charm me even after four days of watching rehearsal, the Ho'ike performance and three nights of competition.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how it is that a particular color, style of costume or choreographic approach will suddenly appear in a cluster of performances, as though the kumu hula had been channeling the same creative source or something.

This year, the confluences included hula noho (seated hula); implements (especially the kala'au sticks, the 'uli'uli feathered gourd, the bamboo rattle and the 'ili'ili castanet stones); songs for and about Queen Emma; strapless gowns; touches of eyelet, lace and/or organza; and particular shades of green, peach, orange, periwinkle and lavender — did you notice the lavender grass skirts worn by Chinky Mahoe's women in their kahiko performance and the peacock detail on the feather rattles used by Rich Pedrina's kane?

In choreography, it was impressive to watch several halau work in extremely tight formations, their arms overlapping and almost moving as a single unit. In fact, a couple were so closely grouped that judge Kawaikapuokalani Hewett walked over to a position where he could actually see the position of their feet and check their lines. (I'd never seen this before, but it's allowed; judges and press photographers are the only ones allowed to be moving when a performance is going on.)

A number of halau showed a willingness to take risks with costuming, and move beyond the usual. As I write this, I'm watching Glenn Vasconcellos' wahine 'auana performance, in which the women dancing "Old Plantation" are wearing bonnet-like hats covered in orchids, each with a single feather floating jauntily as they move about. Earlier this evening, Keli'i Chang from Texas dressed his men in T-shirts and fatigue pants (which did NOT look comfortable to dance in) for a tribute to Hawai'i's active-duty military. Less successfully, Chang's women wore immense Spanish-style hair combs for their 'auana number; no one seemed to know what the connection might be to Hawai'i or the hula.

But the big tradition-breaker in costuming was clothing dancers in contrasting outfits. Kumu hula Snowbird Bento did it in her wahine kahiko number, set on Kaua'i in the time of Queen Emma, with each dancer wearing a different-patterned calico-print puff-sleeve top with a loose, gathered skirt in yet another fabric. This really worked; the women did actually look like a group of young ladies in waiting, accompanying their queen on a horseback outing. And Leina'ala Heine Kalama's young women wore different prints of the same dress design in all manner of bright colors for their 'auana number. There were at least half a dozen halau that took this route.

Exits and entrances are another area where kumu hula often express their individuality. My favorite of these was Manu Boyd's; the kumu himself danced in as he chanted the 'oli for his group's kahiko performance — and why should we have to wait for the ballot-counting, when the stage is open to all kumu hula, to see them dance? I know there is a tradition of hanging up your hula skirt once you 'uniki, but they are the source of all this knowledge, after all.

To paraphrase Robert Cazimero last year after winning the kane overall division, tomorrow is business as usual again, back to our pre-hula lives. Exhausted and burdened with Big Island Candies shopping bags, the sound of the pahu still sounding in our inner ears, we'll board our planes for home — but not before filling out the reservation forms for our hotel rooms for next year. Because planning for Merrie Monarch 2007 begins now.