Is Fame in the Eye of the Beholder?

November 25, 2010

I was struck by the statement that Eleo Pomare’s work “never achieved fame” in last Wednesday’s
New York Times.
What does it mean to achieve fame in the dance field, and who decides? Can a performer who was unforgettable in one era, surrounded by buzz and respect, lose their fame in a later era?


These thoughts were spurred by Roslyn Sulcas’ incidental comment in her review of the Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company, which performs dances by Pomare. She acknowledged that his work is “highly regarded” and should be seen more often. But it got me thinking about artists who may have currency, fame even, in one period and not in another. Or in some circles and not in others. Or in some countries and not others.


Eleo Pomare, who died in 2008, became famous to me the day I saw him dance his solo
in the 1960s. This was one of the most alarmingly visceral experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. He mimed being strung out on drugs, shooting himself up, and wretching. The need for a fix was so deep that it convulsed his entire body. It was fascinating, riveting, disturbing, not to mention that it made you feel like puking yourself. It was so real that you forgot you were in a theater and felt like you were witnessing a slice of the raw brutality of life.


But was he “famous?” He was on the cover of the November, 1968 issue of
Dance Magazine
as part of a series with Pearl Primus and Arthur Mitchell—two who have certainly made it into dance history books. They are both in the Oxford Dictionary of Dance;
Pomare is not. So I suppose Sulcas is correct.


But to many of us, Pomare was a force to be reckoned with. His aim was to show life like it really was for black people, not to sugar coat it at all. He didn’t want to make nice dances for the white people. He got a reputation as an “angry young black man” and all the defiance that goes along with that.


He is highlighted in
Free to Dance,
the documentary on blacks in dance that PBS produced in 2001. Apparently he was close to the (undeniably) famous writer James Baldwin, who, in 1963, prevailed upon him to leave Europe and come back to the United States when Martin Luther King Jr. was about to make a historic (“I-have-a-dream”) march on Washington. Pomare was prominent in the International Association of Blacks in Dance (formed in 1988) and is regarded as one of their “legends.” In 2005, he was named a Kennedy Center Master of African-American Choreography.


In her obit about Pomare in
Dance Magazine,
Zita Allen wrote, “His work defies simplistic labels, confounds critics, and flabbergasts, titillates and/or enthralls audiences.”


Was he famous? How many people in the dance world are famous? Is that word reserved only for the very few—Balanchine, Baryshnikov, Cunningham, Graham, Ailey? And if it’s so limited, is it even relevant? Don’t we have amazing artists who have not achieved that level of fame?