There is a universal appeal to shows like Stomp, Blue Man Group, and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. They speak to audiences in a language that crosses all cultural barriers: rhythm. Another dance-theater piece, the Beat, joins their illustrious ranks while bringing new meaning to the entire genre. Directed and created by Kamal Sinclair in collaboration with Robbie McCauley and Mustafa Shakir, the Beat is a divine marriage of spoken word and dance in its many forms. Featuring Universal Arts' 16-member cast of Renaissance men and women, the Beat's musical journey showcases their many talents.
The artistic pilgrimages that performers have to take to realize their potential are often challenging, and interesting, roads. Kamal Sinclair's on-going journey is reflected in the Beat and in the inception of Universal Arts. Sinclair grew up in Los Angeles and has been dancing her entire life. She has also been traveling the world since childhood, studying the dances of a myriad of cultures. As an eighth grader, she choreographed for the Wild Fire Theater Group while touring Southeast Asia for five months. While attending the High School of the Arts in Los Angeles, she gained her first directing experience at the helm of a black history show. To date, she has been to Germany, Brazil, Chile, and West Africa. Thanks to her, tribal Gambian dances and Capoeira make their way into the Beat, along with hip-hop, jazz, and funk.
While studying at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts with a class of 900 freshmen actors, Sinclair began to develop her philosophy: every single artist has something unique to offer, and can accomplish his or her goals without squashing or inhibiting another's performance. This idea blossomed while she toured with Stomp and learned about their group dynamic. "My director on Stomp told me to tone things down and I thought, 'But I'm giving my heart!'" Kamal says. "Eventually I came to realize that performing is about subtlety, giving and taking, letting the audience breathe. And that it's not about you all the time--and giving your heart--but allowing other people to give their heart, and for you to play off each other."
During the fall of 1998, Kamal, together with Fractured Atlas Productions, founded Universal Arts, a group dedicated to getting together as many different genres of art to communicate different philosophies. Its inspiration is the idea that truth is too big for any one perspective to encompass. Universal Arts delivers on its philosophy by using dance, music, hip-hop and poetry to bring forth a celebration of the power of music as a force for social unity and spiritual transcendence. It's rare when a performance can showcase every single performer's strong talents and still maintain a balance--but the Beat does it.
Once, after attending a hip-hop concert, Kamal wrote a poem in her journal about how the entire audience was moving together with the beat, while every individual had their own way of interpreting the space in between. That poem became the basis of the Beat. Throughout the show, three poets--Mustafa Shakir, LuQuantumLeap and Robert Sinclair--guide the audience through the artist's search for truth. They take you through Music Theory 101, and introduce you to several teachers who impart their secrets of being a performer.
All the while, dancers express the poetry with their movements, and even get to recite their own verses in a section. The dancers' poems are life stories which evoke potent emotions and have an honesty and nakedness that audience members can relate to. This approach of using material from real life was explored in Universal Art's last two shows: Streams of the Unconscious and The Race of Time and Space. And the band gets involved with the dancers many times during the show too. The guitarist, bass player, saxophonist, drummer, vocalist, and bongo player all do more than just play their instruments: they get involved with the motion of the poetry and add their own rhymes into the picture.
Baakari Wilder, an original cast member of Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk is a featured dancer in the Beat. He and Sinclair attended NYU together, and she was ecstatic when he asked if she needed a "hoofer". Baakari's joyfully infectious tapping certainly adds a wonderful element to the show.
When Sinclair visited West Africa, one thing she noticed was how all the people in a village would take part in a dance, regardless of age or sex. Children would be dancing right alongside adults. This observation helped her realize that it was possible to organize many different performers into a harmonious balance. "Rhythm is powerful. It involves the mind, hearts, and bodies. It's scientific and spiritual." Sinclair says. "You can't help to move with it. It takes a whole room of people and allows them to have the same experience." And that unity of experience fits right along with Universal Arts' long-term goal: to form an International Arts Committee to bring together as many diverse perspectives as possible, to help its members train and consult with performers from around the world, and to open up dialogue even more.