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Planning underway for 2022 Merrie Monarch Festival, but uncertainty looms

“So far, we’re going ahead.”

That was the word Thursday from Merrie Monarch Festival President Luana Kawelu concerning the festival’s hula competition, Hilo’s signature event, returning to its usual schedule next year.

That week in 2022 will be April 17-23. The prestigious hula competition would start April 21 with Miss Aloha Hula. Group hula kahiko (ancient hula) is slated for April 22, and the group hula ‘auana and the announcement of the results are penciled in for April 23.

“Penciled in” is the operative term here.

Even though Hawaii’s COVID-19 vaccination rates are higher than those of the U.S. as a whole, and daily new infection numbers, infection rates and patients hospitalized because of the novel coronavirus are decreasing in Hawaii, a global pandemic is still occurring — and another spike in infections is not outside the realm of possibility.

Or, as Kawelu put it more succinctly, “This is all up in the air yet.”

Because of the pandemic, this year’s Merrie Monarch hula competition was held June 24-26 in an almost empty Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium, with the television broadcast July 1-3 on K5.

The only people allowed in the stadium were the dancers and kumu hula during their own performances only, judges and alternates, Merrie Monarch staff, medical personnel, accountants who tabulated the results, and the TV camera, sound and technical crews. Even the music the dancers performed to was prerecorded in a Honolulu studio.

Everyone with access to the stadium had to remain in a “bubble” during the week to avoid exposure to infected individuals and underwent COVID testing and temperature checks.

Other events surrounding Merrie Monarch week, such as the parade, the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair, the free Wednesday night Ho‘ike and Easter Sunday’s Ho‘olaule‘a performances were all scratched and remain uncertain for 2022.

Kawelu said she met recently with the TV producers, who are applying for a grant from the Hawaiian Tourism Authority to cover production expenses for next year’s broadcast.

As for the hula competition itself, Kawelu wants to sell tickets to meet expenses, but added, “I don’t know how many people we’ll be allowed to have in the stadium.”

All indoor events are still under state and county mandates limiting attendance, and Kawelu still needs some guidance from officials before selling tickets.

Cyrus Johnasen, spokesman for Mayor Mitch Roth, struck a hopeful tone.

“Aunty Luana and the Merrie Monarch staff have been tremendous partners through this pandemic, and we are incredibly grateful for their willingness to work together to keep our community safe,” Johnasen said in an email Thursday. “That said, we have seen a steady decline in hospitalizations and COVID cases over the past few weeks, which has left us optimistic that our dancers and kumu may once again be able to return to the stage in front of a live audience for the world’s premier hula competition in 2022.”

Tickets for the three days of hula, which always sell out quickly, usually go on sale in December. Ticket sales always have been by mail, with valid requests postmarked no earlier than Dec. 1 and tickets disbursed on a first-come, first-served basis.

The events of the last year and a half, however, and the restrictions still in place on gathering sizes, mean tickets, if sold, will have to be later than usual.

“I won’t have the tickets ready for Dec. 1,” Kawelu said. “We still don’t know what will be the capacity for seating. Once we figure that out, we have to figure out if the number of tickets we need to sell to meet our expenses. We hope for the best, but this is so unsettling because nobody can predict the future, so it’s very difficult for everyone involved.

“At this point, we’re trying to work out how we can get an audience in,” she concluded. “We want people to come. If the case numbers keep going down, maybe there’s a chance. And these halau all have family and supporters and it would be nice if they were there to watch. But at this point, I don’t know.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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