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  • "Breakin' the Rules":Eleo Pomare and the Transcultural Choreographies of Black Modernity
  • Rachel Fensham (bio)

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The radical innovations of African-American artists with artistic form during the 1960s and 1970s, according to black performance theorist Fred Moten (2003), led to a new theorization of the avant-garde.1 His book, In the Break: The Radical Aesthetics of the Black Tradition, discusses the poetry and jazz music of artists, from Amiri Baraka and Billie Holiday to Charles Mingus, and extols their radical experimentation with the structures and conventions of aurality, visuality, literature, and performance dominant in European art and aesthetics. In this essay, I consider the implications of these processes of resignification in relation to the choreographic legacy of the artist, Eleo Pomare, whose work and career during this period was both experimental and radical and, I will suggest, critical to the formation of a transnational, multiracial conception of modern dance.

Although Pompare is best known for his work as a black choreographer and leading figure in the black arts movement in New York (DeFrantz 1999, Perpener 2001), this essay examines lesser known aspects of his career including his early education, his collaborative time working in Europe (particularly in Amsterdam during the early 1960s), and the impact of his visit to Australia for the Adelaide Festival in 1972. I was privileged to interview Pomare at length just six months before he passed away in May 2008, and I will make extensive use of his own representation of these activities. My research also includes consultation of archives in New York, Amsterdam, Canberra; the examination of newspaper accounts; and interviews and correspondence with some of Pomare's artistic collaborators.2 While this approach adds to the historiography of black modern dance, my interests are specifically located in analysis of his choreographic projects, and to the ways in which his influence has contributed—beyond the United States—to the transnational circulation of modern dance concepts and practices. This circulation involves interaction with, and embodied transmission of, ideas about the performing body, narrative forms, dance genres, and the politics of expression. Pomare's work in different continents was also significantly extended by the many artists who danced with him, as well as by his repeated displacement from any singular artistic or intellectual milieu. [End Page 41]

This essay aims, therefore, to consider how theorization of the avant-garde within the black tradition might extend an understanding of modern dance's specific modalities of aesthetic intervention.3 It is for this reason that I have found Moten's complex book to be a productive starting place for analysis, and I have attempted to use strands from Moten's argument that provide new concepts for thinking about a radical performance tradition. He generatively stresses the interdependence of a black radical aesthetic with conceptual shifts taking place in twentieth century European philosophy, particularly linguistics, that have variously regarded language as a game, a syntactical system, or an apparatus of deferral and repetition, producing genres, subjectivities, and ideologies.

Moten, in particular, uses semiotics to dismantle and decode linguistic or musical signs, symbols, and sounds, as well as the deconstructive philosophy of Derrida to unravel the effects of absence and presence in the politics of black performance practices. In the first instance, however, he develops a close analysis of selected works by positing a model of semiotics that builds upon the logic of Charles Sanders Pierce's concept of first order iconicity, in which a sign or icon is identified by analogy with an object or subject of discourse (Moten 2003, 91-2). In second-order iconicity, according to Moten, the space between orders of meaning becomes the sign of an effect, or a "mechanism" that admits of the fullness of the sign because it recodes black experience as both temporal and ontological (2003, 92-3). The semiotics of this second-order iconicity uses structures of the poem, the song, the dance, and recombines them—perhaps like an Eisenstein-style montage—in order to reformulate semantic units and endlessly attend to the ways in which an artwork reflects or represents a totality. Aesthetic tactics, such as improvisation, montage, recombination, and...


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