Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, June 24, 1999

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Peter Rockford Espiritu leads his dance troupe in a rehearsal
of his new dance piece, "Spirit of Rice." Behind him, from left,
are Betsy Fisher, Marie Takazawa and Squire Coldwell. On the
floor, from left, are Quinn Allen, Esther Tzuo and Ann Smith.

Love to Lili'u

By Suzanne Tswei
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Peter-Rockford Espiritu is putting his money where his mouth is -- never mind that he doesn't have much. Every penny is going toward the big show tomorrow and Saturday, the third full-fledged season of his brainchild, the Tau Dance Theater.

He hired the Galliard String Quartet to play Queen Lili'uokalani's music to a new dance that he choreographed as a tribute to Hawaii's last monarch.

Only live music can do the queen justice, he says. His dancers will be wearing costumes designed by Hawaii designer Puamana Crabbe.

For another dance premiere, "Spirit of Rice," Espiritu enlisted designers Anne Namba and Joan Rohrbach for the costumes. Percussionist Noel Okimoto and the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble will provide the music. Artist Mark Kadota has created giant paper lanterns as part of the set.

The third dance, "Petroglyphs," a well-loved number that premiered last year, will also have new costumes. Artist Roy Venters painted human petroglyph forms on unitards that will transform the dancers into moving ancient Hawaiian inscriptions. Chanter Felward Kahakeli'i, kumu hula O'Brien Eselu and his halau Na Wai 'Eha 'O Puna will add an authentic Hawaiian angle with chants written by kumu hula Pua Kanahele and Auntie Nona Beamer.

And there is an impressive list of guest artists -- even for Espiritu, who is known for his knack in talking other people into lending their talent -- who will add to the program. Not surprisingly, Espiritu is excited about featuring the work of so many first-rate guest artists this season, despite the fact that some of the costs came out of his own pocket.

"Look at this, isn't this beautiful. It's expensive but it's worth it. This costume will really make the dance look good. It won't be the same without it," Espiritu says, showing off the rice god costume from Anne Namba, who did the work at a hefty discount.

Espiritu has the role of the rice god, which is the fox, in a joyous celebratory Asian-inspired dance. The black costume consists of a leather vest trimmed with black fur and billowy pants. Gold sashes tied around the arms and legs and a gold belt made from a Japanese obi complete the look.

There is also a complementary costume for the rice goddess. His dancers will be dressed as rice, some as stalks and some as grasses, designed by Joan Rohrbach.

"This is the first show that isn't so Scotch-taped together. We finally have a little money to give us the whole treatment. With this season, it is really getting to the vision I had for the dance company when I started it -- professional all the way," Espiritu said.

Espiritu began Tau Dance Theater in the early 1990s but it wasn't until 1997 that it became a full-fledged company with a core of dancers and yearly concerts. Consistently winning awards, he has become a noted choreographer by blending the lyrical movements of classical ballet with contemporary sensibility and Polynesian themes.

Also for the first time, Espiritu thinks the company may be seeing a small profit, allowing him to splurge on the live music and professionally designed costumes and sets. This year, the Baciu Award, a fellowship for "dance on the cutting edge," along with grants from the Cooke Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation and other sources gave the company a financial boost.

"The dancers may even get paid in the end, too. They've really been great. Money isn't the big factor for them. They are here because they love to dance. They are the most professional dancers, everyone is well-trained and dedicated."

So dedicated, in fact, that they have forfeited their pay in the past in order to keep the company going. The dancers receive no salary or hourly wages. They do not get paid for rehearsals and are supposed to receive only about $200 each per performance. But dancers often don't even get that after all the bills are paid.

Espiritu, the creative and driving force behind the company, might get paid himself, too -- if he doesn't plan something even more extravagant for next year.

He already has his eye on internationally acclaimed fashion designer Geoffrey Beene. Espiritu recognized the New York designer while visiting a museum cafe and promptly introduced himself.


Bullet Featuring: 'E Lili'u E (Tribute to Queen Lili'uokalani),' 'Spirit of Rice' and 'Petroglyphs'
Bullet On stage: 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday
Bullet Venue: Hawaii Theatre
Bullet Tickets: $20, $15, $10
Bullet Call: 528-0506

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