The Tau of Espiritu

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Whether backstage or on stage, Tau Dance Theater’s choreography and costumes are all envisioned by artistic director Peter Rockford Espiritu (from top: photo by Greg Noir; courtesy Tau Dance Theater).

In the 25 years that have passed since establishing Tau Dance Theater, artistic director Peter
Rockford Espiritu has become renowned as much for his masterpiece productions as what is an indisputable talent for fashion. Showcased on stage, you see, not only is a company of dancers breathing life into nuanced choreographies but also costumes and headpieces that continue to wow — all envisioned by Espiritu himself.

Drawing from a well of seemingly end- less talents, Espiritu says it encapsulates just how much Tau Dance Theater has to offer.

“I really feel like we’re not just about dance,” adds Espiritu, who works hand-in-hand with local designers Manaola Yap and Puamana Crabbe. “We’re about music and fashion. I think those things are very important to me.”
It also is a reflection of the journey Espiritu has traveled.

Trained first in hula, he also studied classical ballet at the School of American Ballet in New York City and spent much of the ’80s on the East Coast. There, he found inspiration in the burgeoning urban art scene led by the likes of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, and, of course, fashion.

“I feel like if you look at the way people dress and how they’ve been influenced, it’s an unspoken language, and I feel like that is translated in the way that I express my- self as an artist,” says Espiritu.

To transition from roots in hula to classical ballet and then some — “I was also a club kid in the ’80s,” Espiritu says with a laugh — has given him quite the repertoire to work with.

“That really influenced me, and it really kind of gave me a very broad spectrum of references for art,” he says. “I think that idea of costume translates still today. … If you look at how I express myself, it’s a natural evolution of culture and the arts in, I like to say Oceania, in the larger spectrum of Polynesia and that whole Pacific Island rim.”

Espiritu also applies that mash-up approach to choreography, combining his expertise in varied dance genres — all of it working in unity.

“[I’m] taking that step as an artist, as a creator, to codify, identify, my own … unique style of movement,” he says. “I think that also translates to the way we dress and the way I want to identify how we look.”

And as Tau Dance Theater continues to celebrate its milestone anniversary, things are as busy as ever, to hear Espiritu tell it.

Despite the challenges of continuing to operate in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the nonprofit organization appears to be thriving. Tau Dance Theater recently returned from a touring perfor- mance in South Dakota, for example, with invitations to perform in locales such as Scottsdale, Denver and Washington state next year.

In December 2020, Tau Dance Theater even became the only company of its kind in the state to put on a full livestreamed performance, titled Indigenuity, on stage at Hawai‘i Theatre.

“We haven’t stopped,” says Espiritu. “We keep evolving with what’s happening and not allowing ourselves to be a victim, but actually allowing what’s happening to help us figure out and problem solve on how we can still go with the flow and ride the wave.”

There’s much more than meets the eye, too.

In addition to providing opportunities for skilled local dancers through performances here at home and in other parts of the globe, Tau Dance Theater also offers scholarships for participants of its Tau Y2 youth program and collaborates with other organizations.

“I feel that it’s really important for us to continue to work and give dancers a platform to be able to show their expertise because Hawai‘i, globally, is very well known for producing top-notch, world- class dancers,” says Espiritu.

“Celebrating 25 years in itself is not a small accomplishment, but what it stands for, what we stand for, and giving dancers that platform and allowing professional dancers to dance and show the level of expertise that Hawai‘i has — I’m very proud of that.”

In many ways, it also brings Espiritu full circle after he left New York to return home in the ’90s to avoid being pigeon- holed in the limited roles available for Asian American Pacific Islander dancers.

“For me to do even as much as I did is substantial, but I had to also understand that I was always going to be the character,” he says. “Even in The Nutcracker, I was never going to be the prince. … So eventually I had to decide, am I going to stay here and play this game and see how far I can get or would it actually be better for me to go and find my own place and be my own prince, as it were; make my own kingdom.

“That’s how Tau eventually evolved — finding my own voice and my own identity and saying, ‘This is who I am,’” he adds. “I may not be the prince that I thought I was going to be, but I’m actually a king in my own kingdom, and I love it.”

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