Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Merrie Monarch Festival features the best hula in the world...and not a small measure of gender-bending

It's the perogative of the blog writer to write about whatever she likes.  So I diverge from my usual topics to write about my amazing long weekend in Hilo, Hawaii attending the 2012 Merrie Monarch Festival.  You can learn more about the festival here. This competition, limited to US halaus (hula schools), is regarded as the most prestigious in the world.  Think of it as the olympics of hula.  It is held in the most uncomfortable venue imaginable...a tennis stadium where spectators are packed into bleachers and narrow portable chairs for six hours with only one break, three nights in a row.  Tickets are almost impossible to obtain for anyone outside the Hawaiian Islands, since requests must be postmarked no earlier than the first postal day after Christmas (no internet sales) and the requests that arrive at the office in Hilo the next day -- something that cannot happen even by express mail from the mainland -- exhaust the supply of tickets.  We got ours from craigslist...something that is hard but was achieved through my partner Cheryl's vigilance in posting a request to purchase tickets before we had even learned that we had failed through the mail channel authorized by the festival itself.

If you have never seen competition hula, you may have no reference point for even imagining what it looks like. Certainly it is nothing like the image of hula for tourists as a form of sensual enticement to visit Hawaii.  Hula is a deep and rigorous spiritual and cultural practice, connecting practitioners to the history, language, and land of Hawaii, and the legends and gods that feature prominently in Hawaiian culture.  Each halau performs one hula kahiko -- the ancient style of hula -- and one hula 'auana -- the modern style.  The former includes ancient Hawaiian chants and drumming as well as performing the steps and hand motions; the latter involves dancing to a song -- a mele in Hawaiian -- accompanied by modern instruments, and it celebrates the people, places, natural beauty, or inherited stories of Hawaii.  Every hula tells a story; the hand motions are words. The head of the halau is the kumu hula, who selects and choreographs the mele that the dancers perform. Although some might balk at this characterization, I found myself thinking of hula as a combination of a practice that ties a people together, like the retelling of the story of Exodus among Jews at Passover, and a spiritually and ethically rooted physical practice bearing some relationship to martial arts (at least as I understand them as an observer of friends who do martial arts), including profound respect for teachers (kumus), past and present, and exacting discipline.

The Merrie Monarch Festival is named for King David Kalakua, whose nickname was the Merrie Monarch.  He was the last king of Hawaii and is credited with reviving traditional Hawaiian culture that had been banned as a result of pressure from Christian missionaries.

Men (kane) as well as women (wahine) dance hula, although there are many fewer men.  There were nine male halaus and twenty-one female ones in the competition.  Also, the only solo competition is for women.  I confess that I initially thought the title of "Miss Aloha Hula" was somewhat akin to a beauty contest.  Not so.  (Although as I think about it, the title itself is misleading in that regard).  It is actually the first night of competition, in which twelve women each perform a solo kahiko and a solo 'auana and one woman attains the title of Miss Aloha Hula.  Although some of the competitors were typical beauty pagaent material, the winner and the runner-up were the two largest women who competed.  In fact, I found it striking that being a woman -- or man -- of size in no way detracts from the ability to excel at hula.

And now for the gender-bending.  The men performing kahiko are often scantily clad, evoking the kind of cheering from the audience one might normally see directed towards women.  (By contrast, when one Miss Aloha Hula contender appeared in a sparkling tightly-fitted gown for her 'auana performance, a lone audience member whistled and got no traction or support from others in the audience). The women are much more covered up.  You can see the differences in this example of the women, from the overall winning halau, Halau I Ka Wekiu, and this example of the men, from third place winner Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La.  Well, the women from Oakland, California danced kahiko in a style largely resembling that of the men.  Their halau, the Academy of Hawaiian Arts, is headed by Kumu Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu, who explicitly said he was trying to shake things up.  I thought these women were fabulous; the judges clearly thought otherwise, as they did not score in the top five.  The audience loved them, but audience adoration seemed to bear no relationship to ultimate success in many instances.  For what it's worth, my hands down favorite wahine kahiko was Halau O Kamuela, and they didn't place in the top five either. Also in the gender-bending category, consider all the men in skirts, for example this first place kahiko winner and this second place 'auana winner.

The entire competition is broadcast live in the islands and streamed live on line.  You can watch all the performances here (or see most of the them on You Tube without commercials...).  Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Merrie Monarch.  Some halaus sat out this year because they are focussed on preparing for next year.  If you want to go, I have to recommend finding someone in Hawaii to mail for your tickets.

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