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Eselu comes home to hula


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POSTED: Monday, April 20, 2009

Every halau stood as one to applaud when kumu hula O'Brian Eselu, accompanied by his men of Ke Kai O Kahiki, walked onto the stage to receive the overall winner trophy at the conclusion of the 46th Merrie Monarch hula festival.

It was to acknowledge his win, but more importantly, the return to form of a kumu hula who has been an integral part of the dance and festival's history. Carrying on the legacy of his kumu Darrell Lupenui—who helped usher in the renaissance of Hawaii's native dance during the 1970s—Eselu and his halau were back a second year in a row, after a long absence due to Eselu's health issues.

Sitting comfortably backstage after receiving the trophy, Eselu spoke about the two hula kahiko and 'auana his six men performed.

The contemporary hula was a crisp and joyful performance to a song from Eselu's repertoire called “;Kalaeloa,”; commonly known as Barbers Point, on Oahu. With the men sharply dressed in yellow shirts, green sashes and white pants, their hula garnered them second place in the 'auana category.

But Eselu was more careful talking about his hula kahiko, the robust “;Tu 'Oe,”; a traditional style of dance called hula 'ohelo that Eselu said is rarely seen today. It was a tough-minded and disciplined hula Eselu's kane performed to a procreation chant, made more explicit—without being vulgar—with extended arm and leg thrusts alternating to each side that grew progressively intense.

“;I learned about this unique dance back in 1985,”; Eselu said. “;When I went to see my source later to learn more about it, she told me that, well, it was better known as a female version, and that I had to dig deeper to find the male version. That version, I found out, was originally performed by the famed dancer, Pu'uahahea, from the 1950s and Kahana Valley on the windward side.

“;When I finally saw the traditional hula, I was determined to teach it to my men as our hula kahiko for Merrie Monarch, and we started in late November,”; Eselu said.

“;Learning to dance that was like learning hula all over again,”; said halau member La'akea Perry, a student of Eselu's for 19 years. “;It was so difficult, both mentally and physically.”;

Perry said the best word to describe dancing for Eselu is “;gratitude. We feed off of him. He's a father figure to us.”;

“;We've matured into men, working with him,”; added Kalei Ai, who has danced for Eselu since out of high school.

“;O'Brian was always a very big man,”; said television announcer Kimo Kahoano at the end of the evening. “;Even after he lost so much weight and through his times of bad health, he took the steps to keep going as a kumu hula. I mean, he could've just stopped and walk away from hula. But he didn't, and that's why tonight is a special night to celebrate his overall victory.

“;He courageously worked to get here and get his dancers to perform with such precision and timing. That's what halau is all about.”;

This year marks Eselu's 30th appearance at the Merrie Monarch festival, remembering that he brought his first group, Na Wai 'Eha 'O Puna, with his partner Thaddius Wilson when he was “;23 years young.”;

“;It's been a wonderful experience for me,”; he said, “;and I'm so thankful for the efforts of (fest creator) Aunty Dottie Thompson.”;

As to whether he and his halau will return next year, Eselu smiled and said, “;I may take a break, but I will be back.”;

The legacy started by Lupenui and Eselu continues through a younger generation at Merrie Monarch. Tracie Farias Lopes, daughter of Hawaiian entertainer Karen Keawehawaii. Lopes danced for 16 years for Eselu and Wilson's halau and became Miss Aloha Hula in 1994, and made her kumu hula debut with her husband Keawe at this year's festival with their halau Ka La 'Onohi Mai O Ha'eha'e. It was a successful one, as they came in third place in wahine 'auana with an endearing and graceful performance of “;Ni'ihau,”; with the dancers dressed in elegant white gowns.

Following Lopes, was the fourth-place performance of Keali'i Reichel's Halau Ke'alaokamaile. His wahine were elegant in black dress, dancing to “;Lei Ho'oheno,”; a beautiful mele partly honoring Hilo town. While Reichel gave this year's competition a celebrity boost, he was humble in his festival debu, and should return next year based on the strength of his wahine's performance and his dancer Cherissa Kane's win of the Miss Aloha Hula title.

Hilo residents should be proud of the efforts of its own Rae Fonseca, who returned with his Halau Hula 'O Kahikilaulani after a five-year absence. They placed fourth in kane kahiko and third in wahine overall, thanks to a second-place finish in wahine kahiko with an electrifying performance of “;Auhea Wale ana 'Oe E”; that imaginatively illustrated teh magnificent places Liholiho and Queen Kamamlu encountered during their trip to Europe.

As expected, Sonny Ching's Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu demonstrated excellence. His wahine placed first and second in the kahiko and 'auana contests, respectively, with his kane second in hula kahiko and first in hula 'auana. The wahine chanted and danced “;He Ma'i No Kalani Ha'u Ha'u E,”; a mele ma'i, or genital chant written for Kao'anouku, child of Kamehameha I and Peleuili, to encourage continuity of the royal blood lines. Ching's kane pulled together a strong, graceful and expressive hula to “;Ho'okipa Paka,”; describing a beautiful, relaxing day at Maui's Ho'okipa Beach Park.

The festival ended on a high note with the winning wahine 'auana performance by Hula Halau 'O Kamuela, directed by kumu Kaui'onalani Kamana'o and Kunewa Mook. Their women, wearing green monstera-print tiered ruffle dresses, danced a spirited, sophisticated “;Panini Pua Kea.”;