Eleo Pomare, whose angry works of the '60s once made him the symbol of black activism in dance, knew the meaning of violence from an early age.
His father, a Colombian ship's captain was killed by a torpedo blast enroute to Panama during World War II and Pomare, age 6, was aboard when it happened. Neither Nazis nor Allies would accept blame for the incident.
The men in Pomare's family were mostly lawyers and doctors, but even as a child he had "a suspicion I'd do something different."
"I was a difficult child," he says, "always a bit too precocious for my family structure."
After his father was killed, he had gone to Panama to live with his mother, who eventually remarried. "It was clear, though," he recalls, "that my stepfather and I weren't going to get along, and to save the marriage, I think, I was shipped off to New York to live with an uncle who happened to be a child psychiatrist." Pomare, now 10, arrived in the midst of the '48 blizzard, an event he remembers because "it was the first time I'd ever seen snow.
"My uncle knew nothing of the arts, but he was very interested in having me maintain my own personality and development," he says.
His first contact with dance came when a "talent scout" recruited him for tap and ballet lessons at a seedy school on Broadway, as a result of which he performed on a TV show called "Startime."
He entered the High School of Performing Arts as a drama students, but switched to dance because "there were very few roles for a black male at the time, and small ones at that." In short order, he'd formed his own dance troupe, the Corybantes, with fellow students and began choreographing formal pieces to music by Bartok and Vivaldi.
He decided he wanted to expand his horizons in Europe, so he marched into the offices of the John Hay Whitney Foundation and said, "I came to tell you that I think I'm terribly talented, and I'd like to go to Europe to study. I think they were so shocked by the approach they gave me the money."
He found himself at the celebrated school in Essen of Kurt Jooss, the ballet expressionist whose antiwar opus of the early '30, "The Green Table," was and remains a great symbol of the era.
"There was quite a personality conflict with Jooss," Pomare says. "He thought I was too disruptive an influence on his students. I began to choreograph things in my own manner for a new company I'd formed with the students, and there was this feeling of competition with him. He told me, there can't be two demigods in one place, and I was expelled. So I took the company - many students followed me out - and went to Holland."
It was during his five years in Europe, though, that Pomare became aware of his black roots for the first time - "I guess I'd always considered myself more Latin before this," he says. "In Europe, I felt a certain lack of the kind of music I needed for my dances. At that time there was a flow of expatriate jazz musicaians from the States, and I grew very close to them, discovering jazz and American black culture at the same time. My blackness really started in Europe, ironic as it seems."
He also began to feel homesick, in an off way, for the United States. "In Europe I'd come up against this feeling that if I shook my butt to drum music, that was acceptable, but if I danced to something classical I was out of my element. I became fed up with that mentality, and I figured if I'm going to have to go through this, I might as well do it at home."
He also felt deep sympathy with the ferment of the civil rights movement in the late '60s. Before he left Europe, he produced one of his strongest works, "Blues for the Jungle," a portrait of ghetto degradation that the Europeans found shocking and Americans even more so.
Possibly his best-known work was begun as an exercise during his studies with Louis Horst,the great musical patriarch of modern dance. "Louis was always giving us these ridiculous projects," Pomare says. "One time he asked us to make a dance that didn't move, but about something that moved." From this came Pomare's solo, "Narcissus Rising."
In it, he's dressed in a skimpy dance belt, boots, leather jacket, military cap and goggles, his bare skin oiled to a bronze gleam. The "score" is mainly the shuddering roar and shriek of a motorcycle. Pomare stands at center stage, preening, writhing and gesticulating, but barely moving from the one spot. It's a tour de force of belligerent defiance, and it has the impact of a mugging.
"The whole sadomasochistic and erotic thing," Pomare says of it now, "was considered obscene by most people then, and the critics said it wasn't dance. Now, of course, it's a classic, and it's in great demand."
In line with esthetic trends of the '70s, however, Pomare's dances have undergone a softening of manner in recent years. He's eager to escape the narrow pigeonholing of his "protest" phase, and demonstrate the purely artistic aspects of his choreography.
He describes "Blood Burning Moon," the work which was given its world premiere by the Alvin Ailey company at the Kennedy Center last night, as a "period piece." Though it involves violent action, as the title suggests, Pomare asserts that it's not intended to expound anything other than "the eternal love triangle." Currently, for his own company, he's at work on an abstract dance having to do with the four seasons. "I'm very heavily into structure, nowadays," he says.