I am often asked what makes Merrie Monarch in person different than what you see on tv. It is true that the cameras can capture angles from above that you won't get when you are in a fixed seat in the audience. It is also true that you do not get the enlightening commentary from Paula Akana, Kimo Kahoano or Kumu Hula Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele as you would on tv. However, I always say that attending the MM event is a multisensory experience.
Before the performances begin there is an electricity in the air as you would feel before a championship sporting event. The audience catches this spirit from the performers who are anxiously awaiting backstage for their turn. They may have been training for most of their young lives for this one performance. The hula dancer's mothers or fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunties or cousins might have danced on this same stage before them.
There was a gentleman right in front of me with a rope pikake lei, slightly faded it's true, but still so fragrant that it perfumed the air in all directions. You might be balancing a heavy Hawaiian plate of smoke meat, poi, lomi salmon, long rice, haupia and sweet potato from the "church tent". The church tent is a portable kitchen that used to be under a tent but now is a wooden structure that sets up shop across from the stadium every year. The tent is a fundraiser for Ka 'Uhane Hemolele Oka Malamalama Church. Hands down, they have the most varied Hawaiian menu in Hilo. There was one memorable year when they sold salmon laulau that sold out the first day.
This is an extremely knowledgeable and respectful audience made up of hula afficionados. Many are in halau, teach halau, are related to someone in a halau or are simply hula buffs. They may have come thousands of miles to be there that night or they might have caught a ride with a cuz just across town. They scrutinize every flower, every lei, every costume, every note, every word, every movement, every step, every line. They know the kaona, heck! they might even know the composer of the mele. They know hula. They will confidently declare their favorite halau a winner and avidly mark their programs all over with ink.
'Auana night is when the holoku, the lei your auntie made special for you, the Sig Zane, Tutuvi and Nake'u Awai designs in mu'u and aloha shirts, the elaborate upswept hairdos festooned with flowers and the armfuls of Hawaiian bracelets appear. Often during breaks between performances you can see the binoculars trained not on the stage but on the audience because everyone is checking out everyone else.
The best performances are those that are little stories. The dancers are so convincing that you really feel that you are watching a parade with colorful pa'u riders or a group of girls gaily pole fishing. You might be at a backyard luau with your 'ohana laughing with the teenage boys proudly struttin' their stuff. A Miss Aloha Hula contestant might actually be a goddess in dsiguise tempting a mortal. There is a glance, a raised eyebrow, a wink and a flirtation with the audience that might not be captured on camera.
On tv, you cannot smell the lei on the olapa, as you can in the audience. Pikake, plumeria, maile, puakenikeni, all these fragrances float down as the hula is performed on stage. When Robert Cazimero hits that high note it is a much more thrilling complement to the hula when you hear him live. You could reach out and touch the dancers as they leave the stage and proudly file past you in the aisle. Their heads high, so confident, so proud of their culture and their heritage.
And then there is the rain. Two sides of the Edith Kanaka'ole stadium, front and back, are open to the elements. Every couple of years gusts of wind blow rain onto row upon row of bleachers. You hear a commotion. It's strange to look back and up to the bleachers and see sheets of rain falling, umbrellas popping up and raincoats whipping out. Everyone laughs, especially those being rained on.
This is why I return year after year, to be a part of this special moment in time.
Merrie Monarch official website http://www.merriemonarchfestival.org