Hula's heart and art beat strong


POSTED: Sunday, April 25, 2010

If anything was clear from the 47th annual Merrie Monarch Festival, which took place for the first time without the presence of Uncle George Na'ope and Dorothy “;Auntie Dottie”; Thompson, it's that hula will go on.

Beneath the arc of Edith Kanaka'ole stadium, the beat of the ipu, and the chants, will continue to reverberate across the stage, passed down from generation to generation.

The festival went without a hitch this year, much to the relief of president Luana Kawelu, Thompson's daughter, who described this year's festival as a time of joy rather than one of mourning.

A service for Thompson April 17 brought several hundred family members, friends and hula faithful to pay respects to the beloved matriarch of the festival.

Kawelu, who said Auntie Dottie was watching from above, has two daughters and a son who also pitch in at the festival every year.

“;She can see,”; Kawelu said. “;She's watching over me.”;

Though he was not at his usual perch (just below the exit sign in the right-hand bleachers), Uncle George's spirit was definitely there at the stadium, as was evident in the finale of the festival, when kumu hula got on stage to dance his favorite composition, “;Ka Nani A'o Ka'u.”;

It was amazing how many knew it, although there were different versions, depending when Uncle George taught it. Even audience members got up from their seats to dance in the aisles.

While the festival paid homage to three giants of hula who were lost in the past year, including kumu hula Rae Fonseca, both in opening and closing prayers, the focus was on the dance.

“;They (the halau) are going to carry on,”; said Kawelu. “;That's what Uncle George would have wanted.”;

In one corner of the stadium, two hats — one white and one gold — were mounted as a tribute to Auntie Dottie and Uncle George. A huge pair of sunglasses placed in front of the hats was a humorous nod to Fonseca, who often sported them.

Now, in the march forward, a new generation of leaders is rising.

Kumu hula Emery Aceret, a former student of Fonseca's who now runs his own Halau Na Pua 'o Uluhaimalama, took the responsibility of decorating the Merrie Monarch stage this year.

Aceret has about 100 students in Hilo, and his halau will compete in Merrie Monarch for the first time next year.

“;My basics was actually through him (Fonseca), and my chanting style is like him,”; said Aceret. “;When I dance they can see Kumu in me. I think I carried over his style along with Uncle George's style.”;

The one lesson he remembers from Fonseca: “;When learning the hula, you learn with your eyes and not your mouth.”;

Fonseca's name — Kahikilaulani — as given by Uncle George, translates to “;staff of heaven.”; The staff is symbolic of various branches, representing students who continue Fonseca's knowledge and legacy.

At the competition, it was Hokulani Gaspang, one of Fonseca's original students, along with Awapuhi Duldulao and Roxanne Kamelamela, who took over chanting responsibilities.

Kumu hula O'Brian Eselu said it was the six kane of his Halau Ke Kai o Kahiki who inspired him to return to the competition this year, with a desire to take on a challenging hula requiring stamina and strength — one that he had not taught in 25 years.

Eselu's former student Tracie Lopes, who won the Miss Aloha title in 1994, competed this year and last with her own Halau Ka La 'Onohi Mai o Ha'eha'e.

Halau Ke'alaokamaile, under kumu hula Keali'i Reichel, has two generations of dancers, a mother, Liliana Koa, and her 23-year-old daughter, Oralani, who placed fourth and won the Hawaiian-language award.

Liliana, who has been dancing with Reichel for 28 years, says she was hapai with her daughter while in the halau. In effect, her daughter has been dancing since conception.

Kumu hula Mapuana de Silva's Halau Mohala 'Ilima has competed in Merrie Monarch for 33 consecutive years, and her core style has never wavered. It reflects old-style hula without any gimmicks, an homage to a long list of leaders, including kumu hula Auntie Maiki Aiu Lake.

De Silva has 'uniki'd (graduated) numerous kumu hula, including her eldest daughter, Kahikina de Silva.

After 24 years of teaching, kumu hula William “;Sonny”; Ching is getting ready this year to 'uniki seven of his students who are olapa (accomplished dancers) as well as ho'opa'a (chanters), which brought tears of emotion during a prayer to Pele at Halemaumau before the competition.

It was the last time these seven were to compete at Merrie Monarch as his students.

They are his first class of graduates, ready to go on and become kumu hula themselves, with the same knowledge of chants, mele and protocol, as well as an ability to choreograph. Meanwhile, seven alaka'i (leaders) — who conduct classes when Ching is traveling — are training to take their places in the halau.

“;To be a kumu hula, you need to be able to perpetuate what you're taught but also be able to create new things,”; Ching said. “;If not, then it's no longer a living art form.”;

Although he does not create new kahiko steps, and has passed on dances students are not to change, Ching believes there is room for new interpretations of chants.

The graduates have a traditional foundation but are expected “;to breathe their own life into their halau,”; said Ching.

“;As time evolves, hula evolves.”;