Abdel R. Salaam’s consistent voice is hardcore African American griot. His latest work, Rhythm Legacy: The Living Books, opens 651 Art’s “Black Dance: Tradition and Transformations” festival Thursday at the BAM Harvey Theater. The 45-minute opus traces music, rhythm, and dance from natural African environments to digital landscapes in the Americas. Expect to be awed by guest stilt-walkers, spoken-word artists, and live DJs, in addition to his 20-year-old troupe, Forces of Nature.
Salaam founded the 28-member company to teach audiences “the history, mythology, current events, and genius of the African American and African world cultures.” Forces cooks a tasty blend of traditional and modern, in a holistic vision of man and woman as animal members of the natural kingdom. Now firmly mid-career, Salaam lets loose. “The marriage of art, culture, science, and academia becomes the epiphany of the creative process. All our ancient societies embraced a living spiritual, sociopolitical, aesthetic, and ethical marriage of all those elements in art.”
Forces holds an enviable, open-ended studio lease with the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. This anniversary year, it pays props to generations of black dance artists including Louis Johnson, Dianne McIntyre, Rod Rodgers, and Marlies Yearby. For Salaam, this homage is very necessary: “Each generation has impacted and developed the next. We’ve fertilized our common environment by looking at each other. The challenge becomes, How do we pull our own voices from this matrix of ancient and contemporary sources?”
In rehearsal, he pushes his dancers to think out of the box. “We take the time to work on a particular thing—but not a jeté or a pirouette. This is about transforming and becoming zoomorphic rather than anthropomorphic.” These Forces are too powerful to resist.