HILO >> Incredible. That’s what the kahiko group competition at the 50th Merrie Monarch Festival was like on Friday night.
A total of 29 groups competed – 18 wahine (women) and 11 kane (men), in a display of talent that will make it tough to determine the winners.
Many halau paid homage to King David Kalakaua, fitting for the commemoration of the festival’s 50th year.
The bar was set high last night, as halau displayed athleticism, precision and a mastery of the oli, or chant, during the ancient-style portion of the competition.
There were plenty of backbends, done in perfect unison and plenty of aihaa (dancing low to the ground with bent knees).
Five ladies from Healani’s Hula Halau & Music Academy, under the direction of kumu hula Beveraly Healani Muraoka of Kapaa, Kauai, returned to the stage after a 20-year hiatus, telling the story of Queen Emma’s trip to Waimea Canyon.
Muraoka is officially retired, but she brought her dancers this year to commemorate the 50th and honor her late sister, Lovey Apana as well as the late Aunty Genoa Keawe.
Kumu hula Aloha Dalire, participating for the 40th year, did not disappoint as her ladies performed “‘Auhea Wale ‘Oe E Keamelemele,” a goddess represented by clouds in the heavens. Three generations of Dalire dancers were up on stage, including Aloha’s daughters and granddaughter.
The ladies of kumu Nahokulani Gaspang’s Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani were a vision in white, with a layer of blue peeking from beneath their pa‘u skirts as they danced “He Mele No Kahikilaulani.”
They traveled fluidly across the stage, telling the story of how Princess Kahikilaulani crosses the sea in her white canoe to meet her betrothed.
The men’s groups were impressive, indeed, and will be a close call.
They were crowd favorites, drawing loud cheers and screams from the audience as they told stories of the skills of warriors, the joys of surfing, lovemaking and mythology of Pele.
Halau Kekuaokala‘au‘ala‘iliahi paid tribute to the late kumu hula O’Brian Eselu by performing a song from his repertoire, “Malie ‘O Maui,” an athletic and bombastic hula. Stepping up to the stage this year in O’Brian’s place was kumu hula La‘akea Perry for Ke Kai O Kahiki
Kumu hula Chinky Mahoe’s men offered an unforgettable performance of “O Kilauea Noho Lulu,” a sitting hula with puniu (knee drums), telling the tale of how Pele founder her lover, Lohiau, by following a haunting drumbeat to Kauai.
The evening ended with last year’s overall winner, Halau I Ka Wekiu, under the direction of kumu Karl Veto Baker and Michael Casupang, who brought only their uniki, or graduating students – seven women and six men – to dance together for the last time.
With no doubt, the conversation piece of the evening was what kumu Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu’s dancers from the Academy of Hawaiian Arts were wearing during their performance of “A Ka‘uku,” a chant by the late Edith Kanaka‘ole telling of the love-hate relationship between Pele, the volcano goddess and Kamapua‘a the pig god.
They were dressed in what appeared to be a sheath of fabric-wrapped lauhala around their midriffs over black malo, or loincloths. Ho‘omalu sang his signature rhythms, and his men came running out with kalaau (sticks). They danced a haka hula, demonstrating Ho‘omalu’s innovative choreography, including a point when they leaped on all fours to demonstrate Kamapua‘a the pig god. “This is what you came for!” yelled Ho‘omalu as he exited the stage. The audience went wild, erupting into cheers.
The festival continues with auana group competition tonight, followed by awards presentations to the winners.