Mel Wong (1938–2003)

Mel Wong moved with the power of an athlete and the ease of the dancer he was. Forceful yet unforced. No mannerisms or tensions, just pure movement coming from deep within him. He took that physical ease into choreography, where he combined movement with elements of light, water, rock. Deborah Jowitt called him “a spiritual thinker.”

He danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and was influenced by both Cunningham and John Cage, the revolutionary composer/philosopher who was Cunningham’s partner in life and work. Wong choreographed non-stop from 1970 on, making more than 180 works, many of them boldly experimental.

His 1989 solo Childhood Secrets from Growing Up Asian American in the 50s pioneered what later became known as dances of cultural identity. He wittily remarked on the discrimination he endured growing up in California, punctuating his monologue with spectacular yoyo tricks. (See Appendix for a video and text.)

“Childhood Secrets” by Mel Wong, ph Kevin Bubriski

Wong was also a beloved teacher across the country and in Hong Kong.

Early Life

A fourth-generation Chinese American, Wong was born in Oakland Chinatown. But when he was five, his family moved to an all white neighborhood in Oakland. It was there that he became aware of differences, even as his parents wanted him to “become an American.” According to his widow, dancer/writer Connie Kreemer, he took gymnastics to shore up his strength to fight the white boys who teased him. And he studied ballet to improve his floor exercises in gymnastics. He joined the Oakland Civic Ballet, then Pacifica Ballet Company, and he also studied with Eugene Loring, Mia Slavenska, Carmelita Maracci, Anna Halprin, and at the Shawl Anderson Dance Center.

He took up the yoyo because he could practice alone with no one bothering him. In high school he won a local competition, beating out the football hero and winning a Schwinn bicycle—his first source of pride.

In New York he studied at the ballet schools of Richard Thomas/Barbara Fallis, Leon Danielian, and Robert Joffrey.

Class at Cunningham Studio, 1969. Merce jumping, Mel at far right, Sandra Neels in white, ph James Klosty

In 1964 he won a Ford scholarship to the School of American Ballet, the academy affiliated with New York City Ballet. Rumor has it that when ballerina Allegra Kent saw his bounding leap, she proclaimed he would be the next Nijinsky. (Reached by phone, Kent said the remark sounds like her, but she could neither verify nor deny she said it.) He attended San Francisco State University and then Mills College for an MFA in visual art. At UCLA, he worked toward an MFA in dance, but before he could complete the program, he received a telegram from Merce Cunningham (who had seen him in a master class) inviting him to join the company for a South American tour. He thought it was a joke, so he didn’t respond for a few days. For Mel’s farewell dance to UCLA, he arranged for a van with a mattress so he could leap out the dance studio window, Nijinsky-style, never to return again.

Dancing with Merce

Like all Cunningham dancers, Wong moved big. When you watched him, you didn’t think about his training. It all looked so natural. During his four years in the company (1968–72)—an exciting period in terms of Cunningham’s collaborations—he was part of the creation of Canfield, Tread, Second Hand, Signals, and the made-for-TV Assemblage. He also danced in Events, which were collages of existing pieces. The Events provided the bracing challenge of not knowing the order until the last minute. Wong would write the sequence on his palm, but the ink would drip away with the sweat.

Cunningham company, l-r: Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Susana Hayman-Chaffey, Wong, Chase Robinson, John Cage, ph. James Klosty

According to fellow dancer Sandra Neels, “Mel was great to have in the company because he was always very calm and in a good mood.” But he needed work on rhythm and timing, especially in partnering. So he would work on his own, dancing with a metronome to build up speed. Still, partnering was not his forte. He told Kreemer about performing in Rainforest, for which, as usual, the dancers didn’t encounter the set—in this case, Andy Warhol’s silver pillows—until the night of the performance. Another dancer had to leap into his arms, but at that moment a pillow was floating between them, and he had to think fast.

Rainforest by Merce Cunningham, decor by Andy Warhol, with Mel aloft, Meg Harper at right, ph James Klosty

In this clip from a panel discussion of Asian American dance artists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1995, Wong expresses his admiration for Cunningham and Cage. In his relaxed, witty way, he also talks about what his Asian identity and spirituality mean to him as a choreographer.

Choreographic Process

While he was still in the company, in 1970, Wong started choreographing, performing in the streets, on the subway, or in front of the Statue of Liberty. In 1972, he staged a 12-hour work for Washington Square Methodist Church. It wasn’t until 1975 that he formed the Mel Wong Dance Company.

Dancer/choreographer Rosalind Newman, who worked with Wong in the mid 70s, described his process on the phone:

Mel could spill out a whole realm of movement. He never went back and edited. He would make it and then it would be made. The movement would fall out of him—action-oriented kind of movement. He was interested in the visual big picture, not very detailed. His sense of time was very different, more like a block of time rather than thinking of it like a melody. It didn’t have phrasing, and he would let me put that in myself. He allowed me the freedom to change the tempo inside of it . . .Being in his pieces always felt spacious and open. Even though they were choreographed, they still felt so open and free. And it was exciting physically: you had to just go for it. Afterwards, you felt like you just ran five miles.

Kreemer, who danced in many of her husband’s works, says his aim, while formulating movement, was “to clear his mind and get out of his own way and let the impulse take him.” When he transferred the movement to the dancers, he wanted them “to do the movement without thinking, to bypass the linear, verbal part.” She mentioned that he often had the dancers looking upward, up to the heavens. “It was connecting with the cosmos, connecting with the greater universe. He wanted people to connect with something greater than themselves. His dances were always about other realms, not just the typical world of the earth.”

Undated photo

He loved the outdoors and would sometimes rehearse on a rooftop or, when he was living in Westbeth, the abandoned West Side Highway (which is now the High Line).

From 1979 to 1987, Wong collaborated with composer Rob Kaplan on more than 30 pieces. Kaplan was immediately taken with his choreography. “The first time I saw his work, I felt as I were watching a dream unfold. The images stayed with me for days.” But it took him a couple years to get into a groove of working with Wong. It was not a linear process but “an intuitive process that dealt with subconscious interaction.” The choreographer did not explain his choices. Kaplan later came to cherish what he called “the communal surrender” of the process. He described certain intense moments in the studio:

When Mel would choreograph, he would put both hands over his face, and just be still. You could hear a pin drop, and everyone was ready for whatever would happen next. He would point to somebody and Mel would move—quite an extended phrase—and then the person would do it.

Kaplan was sometimes involved in the visual aspects of making the work as well. “We’d go down to Canal Street and have a field day,” he recalled, speaking of all the stores in SoHo where you could buy hardware cheaply. Wong built plexiglass boxes and trays for a variety of pieces, recycling and varying his idea of what the boxes could hold. Often the trays held shallow pools of water. In one instance, a plexiglass box was filled with incense, and when a dancer lifted the lid off, smoke billowed out.

Wong’s process has influenced Kaplan’s own teaching at Arizona State University. “When I’m teaching dancers, I am basically helping them understand how to observe and listen and go with an impulse as opposed to intellect, to tap into different realms of your consciousness.”

Wong’s work changed over the years. With the growing influence of capoeira, he “excitedly tapped into his gymnastic champion roots,” Kreemer told me. “He experimented with using the floor, going upside-down, doing one-handed handstands and flips, going more and more off the axis.”

Images of experimentation

Wong made short dance-y pieces, large, unrepeatable happenings, and full-evening works. He often combined and re-combined his ideas, objects, images, and ideas. Here are some other snapshots, the first from my own memory, the rest from other sources.

• I saw Wong perform Ramp Walk in 1971 at The Cubiculo in midtown Manhattan. The simplicity of it was staggering to me. He simply walked up a 45-degree ramp that was nine feet high, carrying a heavy brick in his arms. You could see the weight of the brick affect him the higher he got up on that incline. Much later, I could look back and place Ramp Walk in line with Anna Halprin’s task dances and Simone Forti’s Slant Board. (I note here that both Halprin and Forti were also influenced by Asian ideas.)

Wong and Renée Wadleigh rehearsing Catalogue 34 at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum

• The multi-media Catalogue 34 (1973) occupied three galleries at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum, overlooking Cayuga Lake. There was music by Gordon Mumma and Pauline Oliveros and videos and paintings. The local reviewer (Ellen Beth Laipson in the Cornell Daily Sun) called it “a stunning presentation of Mel Wong’s world, a symbolic and dynamic dance ritual.” She mentions “the boundless energy of Wong’s vision” and “a spectacular ramp dance by Stephen Buck and Mel Wong” which must have been a duet version of the above. “Of special merit,” Laipson adds, “were Renee Wadleigh’s ‘Reflection’ solo, Roz Newman’s ‘Beginning,’ and ‘Walk in Water,’ with Wong and Wadleigh wading through plexiglass pools.”

• In Breath (1976), at St. Peter’s Church, dancers transferred goldfish from a bucket to a tank, Mel did tumbling tricks, and dancers read books on the sidelines. Also, a dancer breathed on a pane of glass, fogging it up, and then passed it on to the next dancer. This is the piece that caused Jowitt called Wong “a spiritual thinker.”

• He experimented with making some of the dancing not visible. In Peaks (1979), at the Cunningham studio, he built a low mountain in front of the dancers, and for SALT (1979) he built a dividing wall on wheels that would conceal some of the action. He also made drawings in a booklet with instructions for the audience on how to follow the dancing.

Streams, with Grazia Della-Terza and Henry Huey (a later, non-nude version),

• In Streams (1980), three dancers stepped in and out of 30 trays of water. For the soundscape, Kaplan scraped the inside of a piano with a wooden mallet. Three dancers, who were nude in the premiere, placed small stones in the water, making it ripple. The light reflected the water, giving off what Kreemer described as an “ethereal glow.”

• He tried different views for the audience. In Glass (1976) he strung paper up between the performers and audience, while the audience could see them only via video. Toward the end, three children slowly ripped the paper to reveal the performers. For A Town in Three Parts (1975), Wong placed the audience high above the dancers in the cavernous Cathedral St. John the Divine, and they could come and go, upstairs and downstairs, throughout the eight-hour performance.

• For Blue Mesa (1987), Wong collaborated with T.W. Timreck, who filmed scenes of the dancers in the Painted Desert. Kaplan recorded R. Carlos Nakai playing Navajo flutes and, for the film, recorded Skip LaPlante playing a metal pipe flute. Kaplan felt that Wong was making “a symbolic connection between the natural and human-made world, the ancient and the new.”­ Jennifer Dunning, writing in The New York Times, felt the piece was evocative:

Mr. Wong creates the feeling of dance in a time and space as untroubled, for the most part, as the surface of still water…. A central figure moves through the piece as an archetypal American Indian, at one moment a bird, at other moments a ritualistic water bearer and figure of death and rebirth. And as he moves, he seems to draw forces of nature in around him, as other dancers, … join in this ritualistic evocation.

Wong filmed in Painted Desert for Blue Mesa, ph Connie Kreemer

• Falling Sky Event (1990) was an outdoor piece with five skydivers, 30 dancers, a trapeze artist, projection, motorcycles and tree climbers, at Artsfest, University of Colorado, Boulder. Wong made choreographic use of the steps of the university’s dance building, the tall windows, and the campus quad.

Asian influence

In 1983 Wong received a Guggenheim fellowship to travel to Hong Kong and China. In her book Further Steps 2: Fourteen Choreographers on What’s the R.A.G.E. in Modern Dance, Kreemer wrote that “it was the first time he’d been in a country where he was in the majority race, where people looked like him…and he felt at home. He became more conscious and proud of the beauty within Chinese culture.”

Rob Kaplan accompanied Wong and Kreemer on that trip, and they created a concert for the modern dance company in Hong Kong and performed in the Asian Arts Festival. The trip deepened what Kaplan called Wong’s “ancestral knowledge.” He became more committed to the symbols of Chinese culture: water, rock, mountain. (See Appendix II for Mel’s list of symbols.)

In terms of the musical collaboration, Kaplan points out that he and Wong often worked in an area of overlap between an Asian sense of time and minimalism: “We allowed time to play out with single sounds while the movement provided the ‘melody.’ The use of drone sounds and repetitive patterns—these were also very much part of the ‘minimalist’ vocabulary.”

At the Great Wall of China, c. 1983, ph Kreemer

Other Story-telling Solos 

When dance artist and educator Li Chiao-Ping saw Wong perform his yoyo solo, she recognized similarities in their lives as American-born Chinese. As she said, “There’s so much pressure in the family to do something else” besides dancing. She was also overwhelmed by his virtuosity. “He had such control. The overall impression took my breath away. Here was this Chinese American man who was so good at so many things and was so contemporary.”

Li Chiao-Ping in Judgment by Mel Wong, ph screen grab

In 1997, Li asked Wong to be one of six choreographers for her solo program at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He decided to use their common backgrounds to create the text for a dance called Judgment.

At first, Li was not prepared for Mel’s dive-in mode of making: “He’d walk to the spot and whip out the movement. I’d look at him like, ‘What just happened?’ ” But she quickly adapted. As she took part in his process, she perceived a melding of East and West:

He had a vast skill set of using postmodern tools that gave him a kind of freedom. As much as he didn’t prepare, he was following something, a flow. Maybe he learned almost a Zen approach in making the work. Attention to craft, but open to chance and aleatory operations, letting spontaneity take place as well.

Click here to see an excerpt of Judgment, interspersed with Wong’s explanations.

Wong also made three solos for Kreemer. In one of them, Never Say Never, she talked about their efforts seeking fertility and how it was a Chinese barefoot doctor, prescribing dense balls of Chinese herbs, who solved their problem. (They eventually had three daughters.)

Another solo, this one part of a larger work, was for Beth Soll, the summer of 1974 at Harvard Summer School Dance Center. It didn’t tell a story to the audience, but it told the story of their friendship that summer. Beth had come down with a severe flu, and he made a dance that fit her fragility at that time:

I was very weak and could barely walk. He took me out every day to eat. “Eat, Beth Eat.” I would go to rehearsal and lie on a bench. He made a tai chi dance for me. The spiritual thing was like breathing for him. I love doing something slow and peaceful onstage. Other dancers poured water into buckets. Making this part for me was an act of generosity. In a sense he cured me.

He also made purely musical solos. Silvia Martins, a freelance dancer who toured her own solo program, accrued 11 dances by Wong. His Bolero for her garnered a praise from critic Tobi Tobias, who called the dance “marvelous” and the rhythms “unpredictable and arresting.”

Teaching

Kreemer came to Wong’s classes as a dancer with Erick Hawkins and Nancy Meehan. “Mel would show a phrase not more than twice and you’d have to immediately repeat it on the second side. My friends who were trained in Hawkins would leave his class in tears.”

But most people felt challenged by his classes. Beth Soll, who taught at MIT for 20 years, said “I brought him to MIT and students adored him. He would demonstrate fantastically difficult combinations and the students just had to keet up.”

The freelance dance artist David Thomson studied with Wong at SUNY Purchase in the ’80s. In a recent phone conversation, he said, “Mel felt more approachable to me than other teachers, more easy-going and open about what dance was or could be. Being one of the few people of color on the faculty and working in a postmodern aesthetic was a rare gift to experience during my formative years there.” One of the things students were charmed by was that he always wore white sneakers to teach class. (“No one at Purchase ever saw Mel’s bare feet.”) But the main thing, as Thomson said, was that “Everyone, everyone, everyone loved him! He was a phenomenal teacher.” Naturally, the students were upset when Wong was denied tenure, and they mounted “a bit of a protest.”

Wong was invited to teach at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts in ’87 and’88. Rosalind Newman said that people there, even now, in 2020, still talk about him. “He made a big impact. The physicality of his classes affected the way they think about dancing. You come in and whack it out. Just do it. In just doing it, you do things you never thought you could do.”

Wong also taught at Cornell, Trinity College in Connecticut, Arizona State University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and independent classes in SoHo. His final teaching gig was at UC Santa Cruz, where he was full-time professor in the Theater Arts Department from 1989 till his passing.

Critical and Funding Response

Wong received a Guggenheim fellowship, six National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Performing Arts, and many commissions. But funding was not consistent. At least once, when applying for a special grant for artists of color, he was told that his work wasn’t “Chinese enough.”

Although he was sometimes reviewed favorably, many critics often expressed mild disdain when greeted with his work. Jack Anderson, writing for The New York Times in 1982, called his work Shuttle, in which dancers transported paper stars and moons, “mystifying at best, pretentious at worst.”

From Wong’s point of view, critics and funders did not make the effort to get past cultural barriers:

I remember a remark from a panelist who said I was “putting them on.” I was very upset and mad…I worked all year long, saved my money to produce my dance concerts, and would spend over $10,000 on a dance concert, which would be over in three or four nights . . . I was very bitter but I continued to make dances despite the criticism. I had support from the dance community, my concerts were always sold out, and besides, I loved to make dances.

Another factor that could have chilled the critics’ reception is that, for many years, Wong did not edit his dances. Even Kreemer says many of his pieces were too long and she tried to convince him to tighten them.

Nevertheless, the performers were often praised. About Renée Wadleigh in Four or Five Hours with Her, Cornell critic Barbara Jasperon wrote, “It was impossible to dismiss Renée Wadleigh’s presence, her control, exhaustive, and desperately beautiful dancing or the intentionally emotional evocations of the piece as a whole.”

Wong as a Visual Artist

A painting by Wong, 1990s

Wong was also a painter, and he infused his dances with his artistic sensibility. Drawing was an artistic compass for him. “He might have an idea about something,” Kreemer recalled, “and he would just start drawing or painting and let it flow out of him.” Sometimes he showed his art work in the lobby of the theater because he felt they related to, or came from the same impulse as, his choreography. Sometimes he would create sets for his work, like a small mountain. Other times, even without sets or props, his spatial sensibility was keenly felt. As Dunning wrote in 1985, “Mr. Wong has a clear and vital sense of spatial arrangement, and he clustered bodies arrestingly at times.”

Wong was fascinated by light. Kreemer describes a section of Buddha Meets Einstein at the Great Wall (1985), where Mel was wearing all white. “He would enter the stage from the diagonal, carrying a cardboard box, and leave and return many times. Toward the end, he knelt down and opened the box and there was light emanating from the box. Then he started his solo.” That solo, judging from this clip, was ghostly and prayerful.

Wong with light box, ph Johan Elbers

Mel Wong was the first Chinese American to win a Guggenheim fellowship in dance and the first Chinese American to perform with Merce Cunningham. He was among the first Asian students at SAB. But no one was keeping track back then. According to Kreemer, “Mel had a lot to say about racism, and his Growing Up Asian American in the 50s series was a way of releasing anger and letting people know, in his own humorous, educational way, how racism had wounded him as a child and how he continued to feel its effects.”

For a subsequent solo in the series Growing Up Asian American in the 50s, he wrote this:

I was told to keep my silence but after fifty years, I must speak out! The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that citizenship was reserved only for whites. That law remained in effect until 1952. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was directed at the Chinese on a racial basis.

As always, there is dancing. In the documentary on Li Chiao-Ping’s solo project, Wong says the following:

You dance before you go to war. You dance before you get married. You dance at a funeral. And so dance really is a powerful form, and I still don’t quite understand why it’s not as respected as other art forms. It’s the juxtapositioning of everything in the world, that makes the world go.

¶¶¶

Special thanks to Connie Kreemer, Rob Kaplan, Doug Rosenberg, Rosalind Newman, Li Chiao-Ping, Beth Soll, Sandra Neels, Renée Wadleigh, James Klosty, Kevin Bubriski, Nick Perron-Siegel, Stephan Koplowitz, and Andrea Potochniak of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. Other sources include a chronology of choreography.

Appendix I

Below is the monolog [with names of yoyo tricks in brackets] of “Childhood Secrets,” Mel’s solo from his series, Growing Up Asian American in the 50s.

I was born in Oakland, California [Rock the Cradle]. I grew up in an all-Chinese neighborhood [The Sleeper]. We lived in a big white house. We lived on the first floor [Around the Corner]. I lived with my mother, my father, my brother, my grandmother, my aunt, and my uncle [Loop-de-loop]. My grandmother took care of me most of the time, when I was very young. My parents were busy working, making money [Three-leaf Clover, Three-leaf Clover]. I remember my grandmother would cook Chinese food, three times a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And sometimes, she would cook spaghetti [Spaghetti]. I remember she would cover the big, round table with newspaper, and use that as a tablecloth. And one day, the newspapers were gone, and replaced with a plastic tablecloth. I wondered why. And then I heard my parents talking to my grandmother, saying, “We’re not going to use newspapers anymore,” they’re gonna do it the sanitary way, the modern way, the western way. A few days later, I saw pictures of a Chinese family, eating their meals using newspapers as tablecloths. And I can’t help but to think: they were making fun of us [The Creeper].

Recently, my wife was pregnant. And we had to drive from Boulder, Colorado, to Santa Cruz, California. She was due in two weeks. So, I asked the nurse for some emergency information. I said, “What should we do if she delivers out on the highway?” The nurse said, “Bring a lot of newspapers. For newspapers are the cleanest and most sanitary thing you can find around the house” [Around the World] [Brain Twister] [Man on a Flying Trapeze].

At the age of five, we moved to an all-white neighborhood. And for the first time, and for the first time, I realized… I was different. I used to go with my parents to look for a new house. They would always come back, with their head bowed low, and say nothing. And one day, my father said, “They don’t sell houses to Chinese people.” Eventually we did find a house—a beautiful house, next to a lake. When we got settled, my father took me to the neighborhood barber for a haircut. The barber said, “I don’t cut Chinese people’s hair.” So, my father promptly took me back to Chinatown. Or, my best friend in grammar school has me to his house to play. His mother said, “Where did you find this little boy? You can’t play with him—he’s from the west side.” Or, if you ask people from my generation when they learned how to swim, they’ll tell you, “In the late teens,” because in those days, they did not allow minorities in the public swimming pool.

Time has moved on, and many things have changed, and yet many things have not changed. I look up in the sky, and I see the Big Dipper. I look up in the sky, and I see stars shining brightly [Star]. I look up into the sky, and I see shooting stars, shooting up into the heavens [Shooting Star]. And I still believe that people will understand each other, and that love will prevail.

Yoyo solo, ph Johan Elbers

Appendix II

Kreemer found Mel’s handwritten list of symbols, which was based on A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Cirlot, the original 1962 printing by Philosophical Library. Because the handwriting did not reproduce well, I’ve typed the correspondences here:

Crescent moon — world of changing forms, also, medieval emblems of the Western world

Flame —  transcendence itself – light signifies the effect of transcendence on

environment

Mirror — symbol of imagination/reflect the formal reality of the visible world

Mountain — for the Chinese. greatness of generosity of emperor. Profoundest symbolism is one that imparts sacred character.

Stone — cohesion and harmonious reconciliation with self, unity and strength, rock permanence

Water — Chinese consider water as the specific abode of the dragon because life comes from H2O

Star — ascension toward spirit, forces of spirit struggling against forces of darkness

Lighting — spiritual illumination

Smoke — escape from time and space into eternal

Portrait by Paul Schraub

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 person likes this Uncategorized Unsung Heroes of Dance History 6

Eleo Pomare (1937–2008)

I’m starting a new series devoted to outstanding dance artists who have either faded from memory, had too short a dance life, or are left out of the dance books. I’ve been around long enough to witness absolutely unique people getting lost in the mists of time. I plan to add one person each month, drawn from the long list of people I’ve either seen myself or heard about and am curious about. Some of them were praised at the height of their careers but gained no permanent traction. Others were never fully recognized for their contributions. This series is an attempt to rebalance the books—the dance books.

First up is Eleo Pomare. Recently, when I mentioned him in my dance history class, no one knew his name. But when the students saw a clip of his work on YouTube, they said, “Why haven’t we heard of him?”

¶¶¶

Eleo Pomare was one of New York City’s unforgettable dance artists of the 1960s. When I saw him in a DanceMobile show (basically a flatbed truck that toured inner-city neighborhoods), he performed a drastic solo from Over Here (1968). While the American anthem was playing, Pomare was mimicking retching. It was so real, so alarmingly visceral, that you could practically see his innards thrusting up through his throat. This remains the most extreme public response to our nation’s injustices I’ve ever seen—long before Colin Kaepernick took the knee.

Pomare was a prolific choreographer whose work was too raw for prime time. As Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times, “Eleo Pomare’s dances always have a special gutsy quality.” His performances were hyper-realistic; indeed he was accused of being “too real.” Although he wasn’t invited to go on State Department–sponsored international tours like Alvin Ailey or to choreograph Broadway musicals like Donald McKayle, he kept making dances—118 in all. His courage and imagination were inspiring; his febrile physicality was startling. As dance historian Katrina Hazzard Donald says in the PBS special Free to Dance, Pomare “imparts a new validity to Black life in much the same way that Malcolm X does.”

For this article, I have relied on two main sources: A cover story in the November 1968 issue of Dance Magazine and a recent phone interview with Dyane Harvey-Salaam, the well-known dancer who started working with the Eleo Pomare Dance Company in 1969. A complete list of sources is at the end.

Beginnings

Born in Colombia, South America, Eleo Pomare sailed with his father, who was of Haitian and French extraction, to join his mother in Panama when he was six. This was during World War II, and his boat was torpedoed by the Germans. Although he was rescued, his father was never found. The trauma of that tragedy gave him a dread of water for the rest of his life. When he was ten, he emigrated to New York to live with his mother.

Pomare in photo shoot with David Fullard, courtesy Jill Williams

Pomare was always drawn to music. When he reached Harlem, the sounds coming out of churches reminded him of Carnival back in Colombia and Panama. About attending the church events, he said, “At the time I didn’t realize I was studying theater.”

Pomare enrolled in the High School of Performing Arts for its theater program, but after a year he switched to dance. Fellow student Cora Cahan (co-founder of The Joyce Theater and now president of Baryshnikov Arts Center) remembers him vividly: “He was true to his own voice at an early age. He couldn’t conform; it wasn’t in his DNA. He was highly original.” He studied composition with Louis Horst; he also sought out teachers of color, attending the New Dance Group to study with Asadata Dafora and Pearl Primus, and also studied with Syvilla Fort and José Limón. After he graduated in 1958, he co-started a small dance company with fellow student Dudley Williams.

In 1962, he accepted a scholarship to study with Kurt Jooss in his school in Essen, Germany. But he hated it there, likening the school to “a convent or prison.” He started choreographing with students from the school, which rubbed Jooss the wrong way, and he was expelled. He moved to Amsterdam with his dancers and performed his experimental work in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark, receiving good reviews.

In 1963, fate intervened. As the Civil Rights movement in America heated up and the March on Washington approached, the writer James Baldwin, a good friend of Pomare’s, called him. “Eleo,” Baldwin commanded, “you are going to be there.”

He was ready to leave Europe anyway. “Eventually, I felt Europe wasn’t for me,” he said in 1968. “A Negro dancer is to them a ‘wild thing,’ exotic.” On a later occasion he explained his disaffection further: “I believed the myths that one had to study in Europe to be really educated, and that Europe was more sensitive to Black people. I was looking for a place to work where my complexion didn’t come before my product.”

Artistic Range

The March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous “I have a dream” speech, galvanized Pomare to put Black life forward in his work. His work Blues for the Jungle (1966) included a preacher, a couple involved in domestic abuse, a prison inmate dreaming of freedom, a prostitute, a cop, a nun, and, most famously, a junkie. Pomare performed the junkie himself, writhing, convulsing, desperate for a fix, basically self-destructing—in the most riveting way. According to Thomas de Frantz, Blues for the Jungle “included a cast of desperate characters who spilled from the stage as they shouted slogans and physically confronted the audience, accusing them of complicity in the construction of the American ghetto.” (The beginning of this segment of “Free to Dance: Episode 3: Go for What You Know” shows part of Jungle including “Junkie.”)

Narcissus Rising

His signature solo, Narcissus Rising (1968), was possibly even more harrowing. Pomare, as an S & M biker, wearing a leather jockstrap, bare chest, sunglasses and rakish cap, revved his imaginary motorcycle, declaring his right to be a rebel. The character, whom we might define today as intersectional, was described by Don McDonagh as “menacing”—until he is hunted down by police searchlights.

Spanning five decades, Pomare’s work explored many other themes as well. Some, like Sombras (1980) and Conaqua (1987), were based on his Hispanic heritage. Others were based on literature, like Still Here (1982), inspired by a Langston Hughes poem, and Tabernacle (1989), inspired by Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Still others were mostly musical, like Back to Bach (1983).

Conagua (1987) with , L: Stanley Joseph and R: Maxine Steinman, photo by David Fullard, courtesy Harvey-Salaam and Martial Roumain

A more hard-edged portrayal, along the lines of Blues for the Jungle, was High Times (1967). McDonagh recalled that in the “Up Tight” section of this ballet, “a snarling speakeasy atmosphere vividly came alive to convey skillfully the unhappiness of the people trapped within.”

And then there was the high drama of the literary sort: Las Desenamoradas (1967) an interpretation of Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba.” About this enduring work, Dyane Harvey-Salaam says, “This situation deals with the human condition, how human beings interact with one another. Everybody in the piece is suffering, except the suitor who married into the family. All of the women are frustrated, and you get a chance to dig into personalities and interactions.”

About his grittier work, Harvey-Salaam says, “It doesn’t bother me to depict these powerful atrocities because if we don’t show them, if we don’t dig into them, how will we ever be able to appeal to anyone else’s humanity?”

But she also appreciates the gentler, imagistic side of her mentor’s oeuvre: “Along with all the global consciousness, the human suffering, the struggle against injustice, he was very intrigued with the beauty of life itself.” She described scenes from De la Tierra (1975), which is based on images from his youth: “He created a cricket by using dancers with poles as the legs,” recounted Harvey-Salaam. “A little boy was dancing around the cricket, searching for his voice. In another scene I portrayed a little girl playing/dancing in the street as a funeral passed by. These were haunting yet beautiful images.”

Pomare was ahead of his time in exploring gender. As mentioned, Narcissus Rising claimed his right to be Black, queer, and self-defined. In “Ode to Prophet Jones,” which was originally part of Radiance of the Dark (1969), he played a prophet in drag. But he also knew how to give women dancers their power. McDonagh, writing in The New York Times, described the solo Hex (1964) as “a study of a woman bursting with venom and magic.”

Pomare in Cantos from a Monastery (1956)

 The music for Pomare’s choreography ranged from Coltrane to Vivaldi, Steve Reich to a Congolese Mass, Miles Davis to the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Other companies that have performed Pomare’s works include Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Philadanceo, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cincinnati Ballet, the Cleo Parker-Robinson Dance Company in Denver, Alpha and Omega Dance Company in New York, and companies in Holland, Norway, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, and Brazil. He has mounted works for students at Southern Methodist University, Howard University, Florida A&M, The Ailey School, and Hofstra, where Harvey-Salaam has been an adjunct for years.

Pomare in South Africa, with Diane Johnson of African Arts Fund, 1992, photo by Anthony Rodale

In the Studio

 Elizabeth Dalman, an early dance collaborator in Pomare’s European company (Dansgroep Eleo Pomare) in the ’60s, said this about working on his piece Gin.Woman.Distress (1966): “My body was in such turmoil, and he would say, ‘Push the leg more, the arm more,’ … the shape being the feeling for the viewer.”

In the early 70s, as Harvey-Salaam told me, “The Black Arts Movement was on fire. Everyone was finding their voices, developing their expression.” It was in this context that she started working with Pomare. “He made me think about what I was doing. He made me investigate what kind of energy I needed to achieve the movement or the shape or the concept.” She watched him nurture other dancers too. “Depending on what you brought to him, he would adapt and adjust and then go full steam ahead on you. He did that with your mind as well as your body.”

In 1972, the same year that Ailey choreographed Cry for Judith Jamison, Pomare made Roots for Lillian Olubayo Coleman. A fifteen-minute solo in three sections, it started in Africa with African sculptures, went to the song “Strange Fruit” with Billie Holiday singing about the horror of lynchings, and ended up with Nikki Giovanni’s poem “The Great Pax Whitie,” an indictment of systemic racism. For Harvey-Salaam, who stepped into the solo later, Roots made a statement: “We have to honor ourselves. We have to see life for what it is and acknowledge our greatness, our ability to survive, achieve, and thrive.”

Lillian Olubayo Williams in High Times, photographer unknown, courtesy Havey-Salaam and Martial Roumain

Angry or Alert?

Although Pomare was often called the “angry Black man of dance,” his own preferred adjective was “alert.” He was alert to the ways in which the Black community was marginalized. He was also alert to how some white critics tried to marginalize him. When asked to respond to critics who called his work “too real” or “too un­disciplined,” he replied, “Whites see things only in terms of their own values — they feel too little for the Negro.” As for discipline, “How many critics really understand the discip­line it takes to erase all white influences, and yet dramatize precisely the world the Black artist is struggling to escape from?”

Pomare had no wish to seduce or appease a white audience. “I don’t create works to amuse white crowds,” he said in 1968. “Nor do I wish to show them how charming, strong, and folksy Negro people are—as whites imagine them—Negroes dancing in the manner of Jerome Robbins or Martha Graham. Instead I’m showing them the Negro experience from inside: what it’s like to live in Harlem, to be hung-up and up­tight and trapped and Black and wanting to get out. And I’m saying it in a dance language that originates in Harlem itself.”

The novelist Toni Morrison has also said that she did not write for a white audience. Of course, Morrison’s novels do attract many white people. So too did Pomare’s forceful and imaginative works.

In “Free to Dance,” he stated clearly his view of the artist’s role. “What the choreographer should do is to instigate or to be forecasters of things to come.”

Pomare, 1968, photo by Sigrid Estrada for Dance Magazine

This attitude sometimes caused controversy. At the Adelaide International Festival for the Arts in 1972, he railed against being marginalized by the choice of venue, making headlines. In the meantime, his main dancer, Carole Johnson had taught classes in advance of the performance to a group of Aboriginal dancers. To the dismay of the white presenter, he gave out free tickets to these indigenous dancers. While the white audience was indifferent, it was his new friends who really took to the work.

Creativity in All Directions

Harvey-Salaam notes how Pomare defined his art. At school lecture-demonstrations, he would explain to the children, “I’m a choreographer. A choreographer uses bodies to paint pictures to tell stories.” She recalled that his drive for artistic expression was constant and varied. When he wasn’t choreographing—or painting or writing poems—he could be stringing beads, sewing a shirt, or cooking a special dish—or he’d say, “Let’s go to the museum.” (An example of his paintings can be seen here.)

The poet in him came out when describing his own dancers. In 1966, two of his longtime female dancers performed in his Gin.Woman.Distress. to songs by Bessie Smith. They were Elizabeth Dalman, a white dancer from Australia, and Carole Johnson, an African American who later stayed in Australia to work with the Aboriginal dancers. “When Lizzie does it, it’s as if she swallows the heat and you feel that the heat is burning from the inside out, that she’s not going to let it explode. Carole ices it; she’s like a block of ice until you see the cracks when it starts melting.”

In the 1980s and ’90s Pomare’s home base was the Vital Arts Center on 13th Street and Fifth Avenue. When he moved to a larger venue, with four or five studios, he presented work of younger artists like Harvey-Salaam. Pomare and his group kept performing at venues like Marymount Manhattan Theater, Hunter Playhouse, the DanceMobile, and the Delacorte. Sometimes the program included works by other choreographers like Anna Sokolow and George Faison. And he taught in many public schools. In this video where he is giving a lecture-demonstration, you can get a sense of how spontaneous and irrepressible he is, and of his unique, androgynous way of moving. He is showing the ditty bop walk of Harlem, and saying, “I want my dancers to be people.”

Morning Without Sunrise, with Charles Grant, photo by David Fullard

Pomare never accepted being wedged into any racial or cultural hierarchy. Even when he was invited to South Africa by Nelson Mandela in 1992, he did things his own way. Harvey-Salaam recalls, “He went to South Africa and was supposed to teach in Soweto. They told him they wanted him to teach ballet and he said, ‘No that’s not going happen. I’m going to see what the people move like. I’m going to have them teach me how they move. I’m not interested in imposing a European model. I want to give them tools to explore their own language.’ When he came back he created Morning Without Sunrise (1986), a work to music by Max Roach that was dedicated to Nelson Mandela.

He was also committed to community projects and co-founded the DanceMobile series. Sponsored by the Harlem Cultural Council, this flatbed truck took modern dance performances into underserved communities in the ’60s and ’70s. As its first artistic director, Pomare planned programs that would appeal to children who had never seen dance.

Pomare with children in Harlem, photo by Sigrid Estrada for Dance Magazine, 1968

Pomare remained friends with James Baldwin. According to Harvey-Salaam, “Whenever Eleo mentioned James Baldwin, his heart was warm. He had a deep, deep brotherly camaraderie with Mr. Baldwin. I believe they were kindred spirits in terms of how they used language and how they were deeply committed to discussing this problem with global injustice. They both had had experiences in the U.S. growing up in Harlem, feeling displaced, going to Europe and hoping that this would be the place where they could simply do their art, but realizing that  . . . this is the place where racism began, the seeds of racism.”

Eleo Pomare Dance Company in an undated publicity shot by David Fullard, courtesy Anthony Rodale

Sparking the Next Generation

Always outspoken, Pomare was the boldest voice on a panel presented by American Dance Festival’s landmark project The Black Tradition in American Dance, in 1988. He posed a question—“What are we going to do now?”—that sparked at least one younger Black artist into action. I had read that Halifu Osumare, author of Dancing in Blackness, was influenced by his question that day, so I asked her in an email to clarify, and she did:

As he was often called “the bad boy” of New York Black concert dance, he was never afraid to explore the underbelly of New York and its reflection of systemic racism and homophobia. One need only revisit his choreographic works Blues for the Jungle (1966) and Narcissus Rising (1968). His artistic themes reflected his vision of the world: one had to challenge injustice and call it out directly. Therefore, when all of the choreographers in ADF’s historic Black Traditions in American Dance project were acknowledging historic racism and attempted invisibilizing of Black dance artists, he wanted to focus on contemporary activism—what could be done at the time to ensure the field of dance was challenged and changed. Although he recognized ADF’s effort and was glad to be a part of the project with his Las Desenamoradas set on Dayton Contemporary Dance Theater, he felt more needed to be done.

When he challenged the ADF choreographers and panelists to think about “What are we going to do now?,” I knew my charge. I felt I had to make a major statement about the then young Black choreographers’ recognition and how they were perceived. Hence, I began to work on a mission statement and the first grant to the NEA for Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, a national dance initiative that premiered in 1989 at Theater Artaud in San Francisco and Royce Hall on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. My project continued for five years under the presentation of Theater Artaud, First Impressions Performances (LA), and later Sushi Performance Gallery (San Diego). Tens of artists were showcased and appeared on panels, such as Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Bill T. Jones, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Nia Love, Lula Washington, Cleo Parker Robinson. I consider it to be the Black Lives Matter initiative in dance during the last decade of the 20th century.

Portrait by Anthony Rodale

Recognition

Although the name Pomare is not imprinted on our dance-history brains, he did receive accolades in his time. New York City Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins (later to become mayor) declared January 7, 1987 “Eleo Pomare Day” in honor of his contributions to the city’s cultural life. In addition to the John Hay Whitney Fellowship that sent him to Germany, the young choreographer received a Guggenheim Fellowship, regular funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and numerous other awards. The Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company celebrated him with a Salute to Living Legends in 1993, and the International Conference of Blacks in Dance bestowed him with an Outstanding Achievements in Dance Award in 1994. The American Dance Guild gave him a Posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

Dyane Harvey-Salaam in Hex, 2018, photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy American Dance Guild

Continuing On

In 2001, the Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company presented Narcissus Rising with a woman, Donna Clark—the biker dude turned to biker chick, complete with boots, G-string, and oiled thighs. Karyn D. Collins, reviewing in Dance Magazine, characterized Donna Clark’s performance as “all defiant glare and stalking feminist power.” This was quite an achievement considering some critics had claimed that this solo relied so much on Pomare’s own magnetism that it might not survive a transfer to another dancer.

In the 12 years since his passing several of his works have been reprised. In 2009, Hex and Roots were performed at a symposium in Paris sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture. Harvey-Salaam and Robin Becker remounted Des Desenamoradas on Hofstra students in 2018.

Also in 2018, Loris Beckles, who had danced with Pomare for 18 years, mounted a tribute concert called Pomare Plus, with his group, Beckles Dancing Company. The program included a selection of Pomare’s solo works.

Longtime Pomare dancer Carole Johnson, who had stayed in Australia to teach indigenous peoples, co-founded of Bangarra Dance Theater in 1989. According to Rachel Fensham in “Breakin’ the Rules: Eleo Pomare and the Transcultural Choreographies of Black Modernity,” this company carries on some of his influence.

Looking back, Harvey-Salaam says, “Eleo wanted us to see ourselves in all of our pain and beauty, and to let his audiences know, ‘I see you, we are together in this.’”

Portrait by David Fullard, courtesy Jill Williams

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Special thanks to Dyane Harvey-Salaam, Cora Cahan, Jill Williams, Anthony Rodale, Halifu Osumare, Martial Roumain, and David Fullard. Thanks also to Rashida Ismaili for factual corrections given on August 3.

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