story by Daria Oresta
photo by Don Ranney Jr.
At first glance, Hawaiian mythology and opera, hula and modern dance would seem to be worlds apart. In fact, these seemingly disparate elements form a unified, beautiful body of work in Naupaka—A Hawaiian Love Story. The three-act musical production is the grandest undertaking to date by Tau Dance Director Peter Rockford Espiritu.
A native son of Hawai‘i, Espiritu has an impressive classical dance résumé, including New York City ballet credentials. Unfortunately, the classical world had its limitations: He was once told that a Polynesian would never play the prince in a Lincoln Center setting. So Espiritu decided to liberate ballet from its hoity-toity, purist constraints: Returning to the Islands in the early 1990s, he developed a well-deserved reputation for cutting-edge choreography, seamlessly integrating classical Western forms with Polynesian and other Pacific dance.
As for his current effort, Espiritu first became smitten with the story of Naupaka several years ago: It is an ancient Hawaiian tale about ill-fated lovers whose forbidden dalliance is memorialized in the tiny naupaka flower which, when it blooms, always puts out its petals in a half-circle—literally appearing to be a flower cut in half, metaphorically a symbol for the separated lovers. After poring over versions of the legend preserved as oli (chants) and consulting with several kumu hula, he eventually arrived at an interpretation that balances respect for the encoded ancient
wisdom with a cautionary tale for us post-moderns: He believes the naupaka blossom symbolizes not only irrevocable, Romeo-and-Juliet-style heartbreak, but also the need to take responsibility for the whole accompanying human condition.
“There is romance and drama that is entertaining, but the lesson in Naupaka is that every action we take has an effect,” he says.
“So it’s important to think things through—even in the midst of so much personal drama. What we do or don’t do is bound to affect others and come back to us.”
Naupaka has been touring the Islands of late, in celebration of Tau Dance Theatre’s tenth anniversary. On December 8 & 9, it will be staged at the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea.