story by Liza Simon
photos by Linda Ching
It’s Saturday night and O’Brian Eselu takes his seat at a picnic table on the grounds of the Paradise Cove Lu‘au, where he is the director of a popular Polynesian show. Tourists stream past the big man, unaware that he holds a special place not only in this seaside entertainment venue but also in the larger, rarified realm of hula. Tonight he presides over cast members he has trained to evoke hip-shaking fun, but earlier in the day, less than a mile down the beach at the training grounds for his halau, visitors would have encountered a very different O’Brian and a very different spectacle. At the halau, O’Brian’s dancers are students, not paid performers, and when he slaps the pahu (drum) and begins to chant in his voluminous voice, he is up to the serious business of transmitting Hawaiian culture. In fact, his dancers might say that O’Brian doesn’t so much transmit as he unleashes, driving them to dance with a passion and vigor that has netted the troupe more than a dozen awards and garnered O’Brian a reputation as an enthusiastic innovator—certainly a world away from lu‘au fare.
Or is it?
“There have always been two sides to the hula,” he shrugs. There is hula meant to be shared with others, he explains, even strangers. This type—hula noa—was used by King Kamehameha to regale James Cook. Then there is hula kapu, says O’Brian: “This is what is studied and passed from teacher to student. Sometimes there are rituals; it is very private.” According to popular belief, hula noa is the mother of cellophane-skirt hula, while hula kapu is … well … real. But O’Brian doesn’t see it that way.
“There are problems when you start thinking about a perfect hula instead of seeing that hula is here to connect us,” he says, mentioning he was recently a guest teacher for a halau in Indiana. Indiana? Yes, Indiana, says O’Brian—where he met students who had found a sense of community inside the dance. “I felt no division, just pure acceptance and so much na‘au for the arts,” he adds, using an untranslatable Hawaiian word he seems to favor—a word that means a combination of soul, heart, stomach and our inner capacity to feel connected to life.
The defining passion of O’Brian’s career has been his urge to use hula to unite people. He originally came to hula as an outsider. First, he was a Samoan entering Hawaiian culture’s most profoundly expressive domain. Then there is the matter of his size. O’Brian may have lost 100 pounds in the last six months, but he is still a big man. He hastens to point out, however, that hula is unique for not stigmatizing dancers for their girth. “In hula, big people can move,” he says with a hint of a wink.