Tau Dance Theater

June 25, 1999

Carissa Coleman, center, in a luminous portrayal of Queen Lili’uokalani, with Peter Rockford Espiritu and Holly Chung in E Lili’u E.
Photo: Peter Yee, courtesy of Tau Dance Theater

Tau Dance Theater

Hawai’i Theatre
Honolulu, Hawaii June 25­26, 1999

Rreviewed by Paula Durbin

Since founding Tau Dance Theater three years ago, director Peter Rockford Espiritu has increasingly used his contemporary idiom to explore local themes, and his fusion works can be stunning to behold. To varying degrees, this was true of all three works in his concert called “E Lili”u E.”

The evening began with Spirit of Rice, a collaboration with the show-stopping Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble, whose thunderous bravura on six Japanese drums took center stage. Rockford Espiritu and his partner, Holly Chung, were well matched as rice deities frolicking through the fields, and they performed the high-energy choreography with technical precision and airy grace.

Despite some outlandish details, such as plant headpieces and hoops suspended around the hips, designer Anne Namba’s costumes managed to turn an underused supporting cast into worms, seedlings, and other life forms of a rice paddy. Unfortunately, Chung’s outfit, a gold bra and black, paneled skirt, seemed more suited to a harem favorite than to a rustic Asian goddess whose earthly incarnation is supposed to be a fox.

The most successful work on the program was Rockford Espiritu”s updated rendering of his 1998 composition Petroglyphs, an adagio for four couples inspired by ancient Hawaiian rock drawings. Built on original chants that had been composed by hula legends Pua Kanahele and Nona Beamer, Ron Perry’s score was performed with strict authenticity by veteran chanter Felward Kahakeli’i and O’Brien Eselu’s hula troupe, Halau Ke Kai o Kahiki, against Anthony Natividad’s haunting bamboo-flute music. The transformation of the dancers from two-dimensional stillness into sculpted mobility required great strength and iron balance of both the men and the women, who traded off as support and display in eerie, erotic sequences.

E Lili’u E, the title piece, was Rockford Espiritu’s tribute to Lili’uokalani, Hawaii”s last queen, whose overthrow led to the annexation of her kingdom to the United States. An opening kahiko, or ancient hula, seemed superfluous to the story. The rest of the musical score, a suite of the queen’s own lyrical songs, including Aloha Oe, required waltzing. That cultural emphasis was perhaps inappropriate, reminiscent of a chapter many Hawaiians consider to be the most tragic in their history. It all held together, though, thanks to the regal dignity of Tau’s newest company member, Carissa Coleman, as Lili’uokalani, who glided through the portrayal of the queen”s reign and imprisonment.

For another look at Hawaiian dance, see a review and photographs of Halau o Kekuhi on page 110 in October 1999 Dance Magazine.