Dancing to New Heights

Photo courtesy Aimee Kimura-Koch

Peter Rockford Espiritu is breaking barriers, elevating the theater scene and showing the world what Hawai‘i has to offer.

Peter Rockford Espiritu was born to be a performer. Aside from being a hula practitioner, Espiritu is also trained in ballet and modern dance. His lifelong passion for the performing arts led him to establish Tau Dance Theater in 1996.

As the only professional dance company founded by a Native Hawaiian in Honolulu, Tau Dance Theater is dedicated “to serving our global village by contributing to the enrichment of our cultural landscape through dance and the performing arts.”

“I really feel like storytelling is a lost art that should be kept up,” Espiritu explains. “My journey actually has been understanding how I can clearly tell a story. I like to think that my work continues the oral traditions of our ancestors.”

Espiritu was raised in an environment of song and dance and attributes that to his parents being Pacific Islanders.

“In Hawai‘i, we’re very artistic here. We have a lot of talent here,” he says. “It’s part of the culture.”

Espiritu’s creative spark goes as far back as elementary school, where he choreographed dance numbers while in the Summer Fun program.

“From a very early age, I started dancing and singing, and I loved all the arts,” Espiritu says. “I was really multi-faceted in the way of the arts. I was already kind of innovating, and kind of mixing things and just experimenting. I got really good at assembling bodies and understanding how I can use theater, and dance and music to tell stories.”

To those who have known Espiritu since childhood, it comes as no surprise that he established his own dance company once he reached adulthood. Tau Dance Theater — whose name is derived from Espiritu’s Samoan middle name — nurtures local dancers and trains them in pōhuli, the theater’s signature dance style that fuses hula, ballet and modern dance.

In March, Tau Dance Theater presented INDIGENUITY at Leeward Community College’s Leeward Theatre. The artistic show celebrated native pride, and cultural and spiritual awakening to transform the arts through the evolution of indigenous dance, music and theater.

The show was a labor of love and featured guest artists Shelley Morningsong, Fabian Fontenelle, Pōmaika‘i and Uncle Kealoha Kelekolio.

From choreography to costumes, Espiritu poured his heart into the show. As artistic director and choreographer, Espiritu says it was a full circle moment when he saw his vision come to life.

“I feel a very big sense of accomplishment and I felt like I contributed to the fabric of the culture here in Hawai‘i,” Espiritu says. “I feel like it can be shared globally — and that’s my goal always. I want Hawai‘i to be recognized for its art and culture.”

Espiritu, who hopes the show will be seen on a broader scale, recently traveled to Australia to break into that market.

“That’s always the goal. Whenever I do something, I say, ‘start locally right in Hawai‘i but think globally,’” Espiritu explains. “I really would love INDIGENUITY to play (at) Sydney Opera House. I feel like the work is good enough. It’s of that caliber.”

In addition to INDIGENUITY, Tau Dance Theater’s past productions include Pōli‘ahu, Kava and Beauty of Maunakea. Espiritu shares that he takes his time when creating a new show to ensure everything is just right.

“I want to take you on a journey. I want it to move you in ways that you don’t expect,” he says. “I start from scratch, and I start doing research, and then I develop the whole concept. I work with a team of people to develop how we’re going to tell the story and it usually takes three years to develop.”

As artistic director, Espiritu has a vision of what he wants, but always encourages hands-on involvement from his team.

“It’s a very big group effort,” Espiritu says. “We get on the canoe and we all paddle there together. It’s a real kind of ‘ohana style of getting there together.

“I really feel everyone should contribute something of themselves to that work so it’s living and breathing, and everyone can be invested in what we’re doing,” he continues. “I also feel that’s why we’ve been so successful for so long.”

Espiritu is currently working on a one-man show that will showcase his life journey.

“I’m 60 years old — I’m still dancing,” he shares. “I’ve done major productions in hula, ballet and modern. All these years, and my body has this archive of work. I feel while I can still dance, I want to create a one-man show.”

But that’s not all as Espiritu has also been keeping busy working with Disney. He’s choreographing The Tale of Moana, the first live stage show of Moana, for the cruise ship Disney Treasure.

“I’ve been working for three years with Disney,” Espiritu says. “I think they’re christening the ship this year in fall in New York City. And then it makes its maiden voyage.”

While Espiritu has spent decades honing his craft — performing, teaching, choreographing and directing productions, he still considers himself a lifelong student of the arts.

“I would never say I was a master,” Espiritu explains. “I teach master classes but I feel like once you stop learning, then you’re done. You gotta keep an open mind and keep seeing what’s out there and learn new things so that you can add to your arsenal of how to tell stories.”

Espiritu’s hard work has not gone unnoticed. Not only is he a Western Arts Alliance Advancing Indigenous Performances–Native Launchpad fellow, he’s also a Dance USA Fellowship to Artists recipient.

Looking back on all that he’s accomplished, Espiritu feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

“I’m grateful that I make a living doing what I do,” Espiritu says. “I love my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to do what I do as a choreographer, as a director and using my company, Tau Dance Theater, to bring my own vision and my own work to the global village.

“I hope I can inspire other dancers, and choreographers, and directors, and theater and dance makers,” he says in conclusion. “I’m from here. I’m from the West side. I was a small brown kid from a town, Waimalu, which is in ‘Aiea, and I’m living the life that I love so I want to inspire other visionaries to really use their talent to be able to follow their passion.”

Tau Dance Theater is always looking for dancers. Espiritu encourages interested individuals to take his classes through Page Academy of Dance, which is located on Wai‘alae Avenue. For more information, visit