Breakin’ all the rules

Jan 15, 2003 at 12:00 am

Unpredictable, introspective, forceful, subtle. Trying to assemble adjectives to describe New York’s Forces of Nature Dance Theatre Company is like trying to convey the intricacies of someone’s multiple personalities. The company employs a fiery mixture of modern dance, traditional West African dance, live and recorded music, and martial arts movement. This volatile ensemble stops at Detroit’s Music Hall Jan. 18 for one performance of their latest concoction, “Rhythm Legacy.”

Here’s a glimpse of Forces in motion: From beneath a teal parachute, braids emerge first, then robust shoulders, then full bodies bursting with passion. Women dressed in seashell bras and long bustled skirts become infected with the beat of African rhythms increasing in speed behind them. A celebratory mood is ignited as the cast forms a tight-knit circle in which inhibition is alien and expression is queen. Beneath colorful lights, the hypnotizing foot-stomping and head-thrusting introduce us to the visceral Forces of Nature.

For choreographer and troupe founder Abdel Salaam, the body is an instructional tool, a messenger, a conduit for artistic vision. Born in Harlem in 1950, Salaam got involved in the arts at a young age through his love of classical music and jazz. His college years coincided with the peak of the black power movement, black cultural nationalism and the desire for a new African-centered identity. In that time of political and social turbulence, Salaam became one of the first dance majors at Lehman College (City University of New York).

In 1972, after only two-and-a-half years of training, Salaam was offered a place in the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. The young artist declined in favor of following his own creative direction. Before co-founding Forces of Nature in 1981 with executive director Olabamidele Husbands, Salaam performed with the Joan Miller Chamber Arts/Dance Players, the Chuck Davis Dance Company, the Fred Benjamin Dance Company, the American Contemporary Ballet Company, the Contemporary Chamber Dance Theatre and numerous other professional companies worldwide.

Salaam and his troupe have been commissioned by the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to help create the first African Episcopal Mass using African dance. And the politically astute choreographer and his company also led the historic procession for Nelson and Winnie Mandela on their visit to New York.

As for the company’s current work, consider “The Life and Legend of Marie Laveau,” in which three strapping men lie together on the floor to form a human bridge for a fellow dancer. She lies perpendicular to their agile frames and rides across them as if surfing the crest of a wave. Unabashed physicality is an understatement here. Nothing is sacred. The company makes full use of the floor, the stage and their own resilience.

In another piece, a ghostly, red-robed figure pounds a staff to the cadence of accompanying drums. A melting pot of 1950s swinging cats, tribal dancers and Martha Graham-style modern dancers brews around this enchanting figure. The result is a remarkable spectacle of diversity.

The dance “Passion Fruit” looks at romance and sexuality in a breathtakingly physical and beautiful way. Woman (Sheryl Pollard Thomas) is draped over bare-chested Man (Edward Lawrence). Slowly the figures converge and withdraw; moving as one, they make love through this stunning pas de deux.

Never falling victim to predictability, Salaam quickly shifts gears throughout “Rhythm Legacy.” One segment has the kind of choreography that makes audiences fantasize about being dancers. Clad in aerobics garb and hip-hop street gear, the company is ready to break it down. Robotic old-school techno drops in as the dancers get ready to cut a rug. Any shadow of solemnity is washed away as this fabulously adaptable cast gets head-deep into some down-and-dirty breakdancing fun.

This aptly named collective explores the cycle of life and the struggle between humankind and nature. The project aims to “expand the boundaries of traditional dance forms in a contemporary modern context, thus fulfilling the intrinsic purpose of any cultural matrix: creation, birth, invention, and reinvention.” Ambitious? Yes. Successful? Naturally.

Forces of Nature Dance Theatre performs “Rhythm Legacy,” Saturday, Jan. 18, 8 p.m. at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts (350 Madison, Detroit). Call 313-963-2366 for tickets and information.

Katie McGowan writes about dance for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]