The 50th Merrie Monarch Festival is just as much about looking back as it is about moving forward.
This year, 26 halau — 15 from Oahu, four from Hawaii island, two from Maui, two from Kauai and three from California — are competing. Eighteen female and 12 male groups are entered. (Some halau are competing in both the kane and wahine divisions.)
Among them are kumu hula from the original days of the competition as well as some from newer generations.
Kumu hula Ed Collier, 72, has been both a judge and competitor at the festival.
He remembers judging for the first time in 1975 as a young kumu hula. It was “an experience I never forgot.” At the time, he said, judges held up their scores on a paddle so everyone in the audience could see.
If the audience did not agree, they would boo vociferously.
He remembers there were no age limits, as there are today (dancers must be between the ages of 13 and 55), so keiki as well as kupuna performed.
Then in 2000, Collier entered the men in his Halau o na Pua Kukui in the competition for the first time.
He has since returned to compete — and judge — several times, and will participate in the competition this year, possibly for the last time.
Hilo kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho is back this year, along with kumu hula Aloha Dalire, who is competing in her 40th Merrie Monarch. Kumu hula Mapuana de Silva returns for the 35th consecutive year.
Whatever he decides to do, Mark Keali‘i Ho’omalu’s Academy of Hawaiian Arts from Oakland, Calif., is sure to get the audience buzzing. Ho’omalu, best known for his innovative rhythms and sometimes controversial choreography, is bringing only his men this year.
Among the new generation, La‘akea Perry is stepping forward to carry on the legacy of the late kumu hula O’Brian Eselu with Ke Kai o Kahiki in the competition. Eselu’s teachings also live on in former students Tracie Lopes of Honolulu (Ka La Onohi Mai o Haehae) and ‘Iliahi Paredes of Maui (Halau Kekuaokalaaualailiahi), who are both competing this year.
Nahoku Gaspang is leading Halau Hula ‘o Kahikilaulani for the late kumu hula Rae Fonseca. The halau went on to compete after Fonseca’s death in 2010 and is competing this year as well.
The festival also welcomes Healani’s Hula Halau & Music Academy under the direction of Beverly Apana Muraoka from Kapaa, Kauai, who is returning after a 20-year hiatus. She is bringing her halau to dance in honor of her late sister, kumu hula, singer and entertainer Lovey Apana.
“I think the kumu today have really stepped it up and brought hula to a very high level as far as dressing, precision and even the choreography,” said Collier. “I’m hoping that our ancestors are pleased with what we are doing today. We bring honor, I think, to the hula by doing all these things.”
Keali’i Reichel, one of Hawaii’s top recording artists, whose Halau Ke’alaokamaile took the overall title in 2011, is back at Merrie Monarch as a first-time judge.
Ishmael Stagner, author of “Kumu Hula Roots and Branches,” says that to see former young dancers bringing their own halau to the festival is a sign that hula continues to live.
Merrie Monarch is also one of the best places to hear the best musicians in Hawaii as they accompany the halau during their dances, he said.
“Behind the scenes you have Hawaii’s greatest musicians working with six or seven different halau,” Stagner said. “You have the greatest musicians singing background. They’re the heartbeat of the culture.”