HILO » Giving a winning performance at the 51st Merrie Monarch Festival was a sweet landing for the dancers of Ka Leo o Laka i ka Hikina o ka La, who have been on a long voyage of preparation this past year.
The kane (men) of the Honolulu halau, under the direction of kumu hula Kaleo Trinidad, took the overall title Saturday, bringing home the Lokalia Montgomery Perpetual Trophy by virtue of posting the highest combined score in the competition.
It was a fitting milestone given that it was Trinidad’s 10th year competing.
In February the halau traveled to Niihau to experience firsthand the island’s special features that were highlighted in its mele, “Aia i Ni‘ihau Ku‘u Pawehe,” during the group kahiko (ancient-style) competition Friday night.
The dynamic choreography, using kalaau sticks, honored makers of the soft pawehe mats with colorful geometric designs which are well known on Niihau, while celebrating the isle’s natural beauty. The performance held the audience captive with its quick-moving precision and intricacy.
The male dancers moved as one, wove in between one another, at times with some dancers in noho (sitting) positions and others standing up. They never missed a beat.
“That was one of the first hula I learned as a student, and I loved it very much but I felt there was so much more for me to learn preparing the dance,” said Trinidad. “It was wonderful to learn everything there was about that mele and all the traditions.”
Trinidad, 38, drew from his own personal experiences for the auana (modern-style) number, “Ho‘i ke Aloha i Ra‘iatea,” commemorating the 1992 voyage of the Hokule‘a from Hawaii to Raiatea, Society Islands, and Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
It was a tribute to the Hokule‘a’s upcoming worldwide voyage that struck a chord with the audience, as dancers brought the story of the double-hulled canoe to life onstage.
While in high school, Trinidad was part of a group of students that traveled throughout Polynesia to greet the Hokule‘a at its major landfalls with ceremonies featuring chant and hula.
“That was the most important part of my training growing up,” said Trinidad, who considers navigator Nainoa Thompson one of his mentors and a source of inspiration. “It’s shaped who I am today.”
A TOTAL of 28 groups — 11 kane and 17 wahine — brought their best to the world stage at Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium on Friday and Saturday nights, following Thursday night’s Miss Aloha Hula event.
What was made clear during the intense three days of competition is that hula is alive and well, and can be expected to continue well on into the next 50 years of the Merrie Monarch Festival.
A new succession of kumu hula, like Trinidad, are bringing their own vision to the stage, along with new generations of dancers, including the grandchildren of veteran kumu hula Aloha Dalire.
Ka La ‘Onohi Mai o Ha‘eha‘e of Kaneohe, under the direction of kumu Tracie and Keawe Lopes, took the top spots for group wahine kahiko and wahine overall. Their dancer, Ke‘alohilani Serrao, captured the Miss Aloha Hula title Thursday night.
The standards keep rising as dancers demonstrate more proficiency with oli (chant), precision, unity and creative use of the stage. Judges award points using criteria such as entrance and exit, grooming, interpretation, hand gestures, foot movement, expression and costume authenticity.
It was a tough competition to score, according to kumu Keali‘i Reichel, the 2011 overall winner and a judge for the second year in a row.
“I think what it comes down to is technicality and a moving performance,” he said. “It’s becoming more difficult because the bar is set higher every year.”
Trinidad, who is a teacher for Kamehameha Schools Kapalama’s performing arts department, has often been innovative while staying within traditional bounds.
He has never shied away from the use of implements, including in 2011 when his kane used the lesser-seen ulili, a spinning gourd instrument. The halau took second place in men’s overall and men’s kahiko that year, and the top spot in men’s auana with a fun-filled tribute to surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku.
Last year Trinidad brought a small group of experienced dancers to the competition. This year the group was substantially larger, with 24 dancers ranging in age from 15 to 26.
They had worked hard all year, practicing their hula, delving into the history and culture of Niihau and the Hokule‘a. They made their own kahiko costumes, weaving a pattern representing Niihau into the fine mats they wore as pau skirts.
“It’s amazing,” said the kumu’s wife, Jenni Trinidad. “He’s worked so hard and has so much passion for hula. He just loves doing this and does it for our haumana (students).”
Trinidad’s daughter, Elizabeth, practically grew up with the Merrie Monarch experience. Just an infant when the halau first entered the festival, she is now 9 and a hula dancer herself.
Trinidad credits his mother and choir director Pamela Nakagawa as an inspiration. Other teachers include Randie Fong, Holoua Stender, Wayne Keahi Chang and kumu Chinky Mahoe, who was last year’s Merrie Monarch overall winner.
As for Trinidad’s students, they’re not done with their journey. As part of Merrie Monarch tradition, they will join the other 2014 winners in traveling to Ikaho, Japan, to perform later this year.
>> Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, Kumu Kaleo Trinidad, Honolulu, Oahu, 1,194
>> Ka La ʻOnohi Mai O Haʻehaʻe, Kumu Tracie and Keawe Lopes, Kaneohe, Oahu, 585
>> Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka, Kumu Napua Greig, Kula, Maui, 579
>> Hula Halau ʻO Kamuela, Kumu Kauʻionalani Kamanaʻo and Kunewa Mook, Kalihi & Waimanalo, Oahu, 570
>>Halau Mohala ʻIlima, Kumu Mapuana de Silva, Kailua, Oahu, 567
>> Halau I Ka Wekiu, Kumu Karl Veto Baker and Michael Casupang, Pauoa, Oahu, 561
>> Hula Halau ʻO Kamuela, Kumu Kauʻionalani Kamanaʻo and Kunewa Mook, Kalihi & Waimanalo, Oahu, 597
>> Ka La ʻOnohi Mai O Haʻehaʻe, Kumu Tracie and Keawe Lopes, Kaneohe, Oahu, 593 (tiebreaker 824)
>> Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka, Kumu Napua Greig, Kula, Maui, 593 (tiebreaker 822)
>> Halau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leina‘ala, kumu Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin, 590
>> Halau Hula Olana, kumu Olana and Howard Ai, 588
>> Ka La ʻOnohi Mai O Haʻehaʻe, Kumu Tracie and Keawe Lopes, Kaneohe, Oahu, 1,178
>> Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka, Kumu Napua Greig, Kula, Maui, 1,172
>> Hula Halau ʻO Kamuela, Kumu Kauʻionalani Kamanaʻo and Kunewa Mook, Kalihi & Waimanalo, 1,167
>> Kawailiʻula, Kumu Chinky Mahoe, Kailua, Oahu, 590
>> Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, Kumu Kaleo Trinidad, Honolulu, Oahu, 585
>> Halau Na Mamo O Puʻuanahulu, Kumu William Kahakuleilehua Haunuʻu “Sonny” Ching & Lopaka Igarta-De Vera, Kapahulu, Oahu, 578
>> Halau I Ka Wekiu, Kumu Karl Veto Baker and Michael Casupang, Pauoa, Oahu, 576
>> Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, Kumu Kaleo Trinidad, Honolulu, Oahu, 609
>> Halau Hula ʻO Kahikilaulani, Kumu Nahoku Gaspang, Hilo, Hawaii, 586
>> Halau Na Mamo O Puʻuanahulu, Kumu William Kahakuleilehua Haunuʻu “Sonny” Ching & Lopaka Igarta-De Vera, Kapahulu, Oahu, 585 (818)
>> Halau Kekuaokalaʻauʻalaʻiliahi, Kumu ʻIliahi and Haunani Paredes, Wailuku, Maui, 585 (810)
>> Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, Kumu Kaleo Trinidad, Honolulu, Oahu 1,194
>> Kawailiʻula, Kumu Chinky Mahoe, Kailua, Oahu 1,169
>> Halau Na Mamo O Puʻuanahulu, Kumu William Kahakuleilehua Haunuʻu “Sonny” Ching & Lopaka Igarta-De Vera, Kapahulu, Oahu 1,163