The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) is celebrating the Kwanzaa holiday this year with an African dance performance starring the acclaimed New York-based troupe Forces of Nature Dance Theatre on Saturday, Dec 23 at 3 p.m. in the Victoria Theater on the Lizzie & Jonathan Tisch Stage.
Helmed by Forces of Nature's executive artistic director and choreographer Abdel R. Salaam, the festive dance celebration will blend traditional West African and neo-African disciplines as well as hip-hop, ballet, contemporary modern dance, and martial arts from across the African diaspora. The performance is meant to be a powerful homage to the ancestors and a vibrant way to honor the holiday with the entire family. To equally showcase local artists, the opening for Forces of Nature is choreographer and dancer Karen Love, founder and artistic director of the Umoja Dance Company and Umoja Dance Studio in Vauxhall, NJ.
Created in 1966 by a California State University African Studies professor, Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is an annual holiday that celebrates family, community, and culture through music, dance, poetry, storytelling, and art, with activities organized around the Nguzo Saba (seven principles). The seven-day festival begins Dec 26 and ends Jan 1, with each day dedicated to one of the seven principles defined in Swahili: unity (Umoja), self-determination (Kujichagulia), collective responsibility (Ujima), cooperative economics (Ujamaa), purpose (Nia), creativity (Kuumba), and faith (Imani). The concept of Kwanzaa is rooted in the first fruits or harvest festivals that are found throughout Southern Africa.
Forces of Nature will share the meaning and inspiration behind each of the seven principles of Kwanzaa as they are used worldwide. "Audiences attending the concert will see a program that's dedicated towards family and community empowerment through the various principles of the Nguzo Saba and how that manifests itself within the work," says Salaam. He also notes that these principles are not to be practiced just during Kwanza but throughout the year.
"Every day of your life, you need to find something that gives you a better understanding of unity within yourself and the people around you. Every day of your life, you need to find greater degrees of self-determination to give you the power to move forward and accomplish things that you can will yourself to do," he explains. "Every day of your life, you need to find ways to work with people around you to build things together by pooling resources and money." He poses the question: "what is your individual purpose, and what's your collective purpose?" He adds, "you have to find faith in yourself and others (your fellow man)."
Salaam notes that much of his life's work is centered in Nguzo Saba. "The first ballet I ever choreographed was called The Nguzo Saba. I was married in a Kwanzaa celebration. My wife and I will be celebrating, on January 4th, 40 years of coming together. We wrote our vows connected to the Nguzo Saba," he shares.
Salaam founded Forces of Nature Dance Theatre in 1981 along with his wife and former principal dancer Dyane Harvey Salaam and his partner Olabamidele Husbands, who serves as the executive managing director. The dance company has produced and presented programs throughout the world for over the past 42 years.
Salaam, who recently celebrated his 73rd birthday, acknowledges that he grew up amidst a time of civil unrest in the United States and various social justice movements—civil rights, Black power, cultural nationalism, women's rights, and the anti-war movement. "So, I came up being inspired by people who are storytellers," he says, "because stories are very important to us as a community." He believes that telling stories is a universal way of sharing ideas, maintaining culture, and helping people make connections. It's also a way of teaching, influencing or inspiring others.
Just the same, for Salaam, dance is a universal form of communication. "I feel it is necessary to try to create work which is hopefully thought-provoking and causes people during intermission or at the end of the show to say, 'What was that?' Or 'I got that' and 'Gee, I think I want to come take a look at this company again because they did something that made me to take a look inside myself and to see the importance of culture and community and who I am and how my life is centered within the balance of those two relationships,'" Salaam adds. "I pray that the audience gets that when they see the work."
The Kwanzaa festival performance will feature a dance piece called "Memorial" that honors the ancestors with a recitation. The dance movements express the beauty of how it's important for us to connect to our roots and the elders, Salaam says, "those people who came before us who lived and died so that we could be who we are. All of that will be present within the work."
Another dance piece, "Sevens," takes the abstraction of the number seven and what is behind the neurological power of seven. What's more, Salaam says, it is an exploration into what makes a work Neo-African rather than traditional African dance.
Forces of Nature Dance Theatre
The Forces of Nature Dance Theatre company has changed over the past four decades, in particular, the progression from Salaam choreographing all the dance routines to others creating the work. "In that amazing beginning where the body becomes one's first way to determine how we communicate, it still does that, but with a multiplicity of languages. So, at one point where all of the work was Abdel Salaam's, now I've got work choreographed by some of the people that have come up in the company."
Salaam is quick to point out that Karen Love was one of his students taking part in the work he choreographed at the American Dance Festival in 1992, and now she has gone on to form her own company and host her own diasporic festival. Love, who has studied West African dance and culture for the past thirty years, also served as a faculty member in the junior division at The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and is a former adjunct professor at Montclair State University. Salaam adds that he takes great pride in having Love open for his dance company at this year's NJPAC Kwanza celebration. For him, it's a full-circle moment.
The Forces of Nature Dance Theatre festive Kwanzaa celebration takes place on Saturday, December 23, 2023, at 3 p.m. and the ticket price is $49-$59. Visit the NJPAC website to purchase tickets or learn more about the performance.
Newark | December 23, 2023 | 3:00pm