Draped in legacy
By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer
When a kumu hula designs a costume for the Merrie Monarch Festi-val, it's more than a garment to adorn the dancers. It's a way of perpetuating the hālau's genealogy.
"The costume is determined by more the hula tradition than the song, but it also has to be appropriate for the song," said Michael Casupang, kumu hula of Hālau I Ka Wēkiu.
Next week, Casupang and kumu hula Karl Veto Baker will take their kāne dancers to the Merrie Monarch. They alternate the hālau's women and men each year.
The men of Hālau I Ka Wēkiu will wear a simple black and white malo (loincloth) and pā'ā (fiber or binding) for their song, "Waialua Kau I Ka Lani Keha." The song was written by their hula brother, Kaipo Hale.
The costume is inspired by one given to Robert Cazimero, Baker's kumu hula, by his hula mother, Aunty Ma'iki Aiu Lake. Baker wore it to compete in his first Merrie Monarch in 1978, when Cazimero's Hālau Nā Kamalei won the kāne division.
"Our genealogy goes back to Kaua'i, and this costume goes back eons," Baker explained.
These are not costumes that a designer or seamstress whips up for the men. They create every aspect themselves, from making and applying the "paint" to cutting and sewing the fabric.
The "paint" that makes the textile designs is actually ash from special lei that the kumu hula and hālau members have saved, dried and burned. Each lei has a significance, so the ashes take on a spiritual meaning for the kumu and dancers. This year's costumes even contain ashes from 20 years ago, when Baker and Casupang uniki'd (graduated) as kumu hula.
Kukui nut oil is mixed with the ashes to make a paste serving as paint. It's processed by hand by each dancer. They pick the nuts, bake them, crack and peel them and mash them until they become oil. Each hālau member contributes a little oil to the pot, from the class of 2000 through the class of 2010.
It's a way of involving every dancer, even those who will not be on stage at Merrie Monarch.
Hula adornments, especially for the Merrie Monarch dancers, are not purchased from a florist.
They are picked from a forest or a yard. This year, Hālau I Ka Wēkiu went to the mountains in Wai'anae and Kāne'ohe to gather palapalai ferns for their lei po'o (head lei) and kūpe'e (bracelets or anklets).
"We ask permission to the elements before we go into the forest," Casupang explained. "We talk to the ferns while cutting and we thank them."
The picking becomes a sort of spiritual retreat for the hālau members and Merrie Monarch dancers.
Around their necks will be red 'a'ali'i, which the kumu hula grow in their hālau garden.
Cy Bridges of Hau'ula, cultural director of the Polynesian Cultural Center and a longtime judge for the Merrie Monarch, and for hula competitions on the Mainland, in Japan and throughout the Islands, said there are rules and regulations for Merrie Monarch costumes the hālau must follow.
"The rules say you cannot wear all black and cannot use silk flowers," Bridges said, as an example.
Judges award three to 10 points for costume authenticity, and three to 10 points for adornments such as lei.
Kumu provide the judges with fact sheets that help explain the genealogy of the song and the hālau.
One key factor the judges look for, Bridges said, is that "The attire must fit the era."
For example, if a hālau is doing a chant from the Kalākaua era, it would be incorrect to wear a malo and pā'ā. "When you look at the attire during the Kalākaua era, you see them wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants. I don't know if anyone can find Hawaiian dancers during the Kalākaua era in malos," Bridges said. "It depends on the era of the song or the chant, there are so many facets in the way you look at it.
"When you are following in the footsteps of your kumu and doing things that have been handed down from your kumu, that's special. When you're thinking like that, it's taken to a whole new level — more precious and meaningful than going down to FloraDec and getting some stamps and materials to print with."
As a longtime dancer himself, Bridges is generally impressed with the intense study that goes into the costumes for the Merrie Monarch.
"Some explanations are very deep and you could teach a class with the information that comes out in their fact sheets. When they get up on that stage you know they have gone through it with a fine-tooth comb and they know every detail about it. They have gone to places and studied the chants. It's amazing for a lot of them."
For others, Bridges said, the costumes are quite simple — "just based on what the kumu likes."
Does taste factor into the judging? Inevitably, a little of the judging does come down to taste. "Sometimes something you think is so awesome and beautiful, and another judge looks at it and goes, 'Huh?' "
"For the most part it's magnificent, but every once in a while you think, 'Oh, my, what did they ... um ... perhaps that would have been better at a lū'au or somewhere. But when you come to a competition it's all up to the discretion of the kumu," Bridges explained.
Do the kumu hula try to anticipate what the judges might respond to?
No, Casupang said adamantly. "We have to be who we are and stick with that. It would be an insult to my teacher if I just tried to please the judges."