In an interstitial video between sets at David Byrne's Contemporary Color, a number of people involved in "colour guard" try to define what, exactly, it is, and it's a student who puts it most aptly: "It's a sport of the arts."
Colour guard is a mix of ballet, rhythmic gymnastics, interpretive dance and, to a certain degree, cheerleading, all performed to recorded music. Incorporated into the routines are other objects — rifles, swords and, especially, flags — that are spun, thrown and caught in rhythm with the music. Though the students who perform it are athletes, there's a level of self-expression that also makes it, undeniably, an art form, and supersedes the militaristic aspect of it. In an intro to his project, Byrne calls it "a vernacular art and performance form."
Byrne was won over after a colour guard team used his music for a performance and sent a recording of it to him in 2008, and shopped the idea around of putting on a colour guard performance in which the teams performed to live music by real musicians; he called it Contemporary Color, and got a host of contemporary musicians to participate by contributing, and then performing, original music.
At the debut performance of Contemporary Color, at Toronto's Luminato Festival, the teams demonstrated the breadth of ideas and emotions that colour guarding can express. An early performance by Nelly Furtado and tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus found Ventures, a Canadian colour guard group from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, performing an exuberant set to a hand clap-punctuated song written by Furtado, Gener8ion and Fritz Helder that called for nimble hands and careful feet from the performers as they tossed flags back and forth while climbing up and down moveable tables. It felt joyous.
St. Vincent offered up more serious fare to her collaborators, Field of View, a West Chester, Pennsylvania team. The show, "Lunatic," explored the stigma of mental health, as the Annie Clark-penned "Everyone You Know Will Go Away" began slow and torturous, with vocalized bass accompanying a performance that was more drama than dance — at least until the song stirred from its opening dizzy lurch to a more emphatic climax, at which point the flags seemingly became metaphors for triumph.
David Byrne, St. Vincent and Lucius' performance with Longueil, Quebec's Les Eclipses was a classic, Disney-esque ballad complemented by the team's stark white aesthetic and dazzling flags; Lucius and Shenendehowa High School's "Master of Suspense" show was a gripping opener; tUnE-yArDs' "Body Code" complemented the robotic theme of New Jersey troupe Emanon's "Beautiful Mechanical" perfectly, especially when they jittered, as if malfunctioning, halfway though.
Dev Hynes and New Jersey's Black Watch performed "What We Leave Behind," an uplifting, finely detailed piece that somehow seemed to include more — and higher — sword throwing, as the performers moved (and slid, between each other's extended arms) over their sky blue floor tarp.
Video interstitials provided both temporary entertainment and welcome information; while some simply featured Nico Muhly humorously quipping about what the performers must be thinking while on the floor, or colour guard dads trying in vain to describe How to Dress Well's music, others offered explanations for how the pieces came together and how setup and takedown (of floor tarps, tables, temporary walls) are organized, giving behind-the-scenes details that gave context for the performances.
Particularly moving were those that showed these students, whose mode of performance seems to come last in the hierarchy of football>cheerleaders>marching band>etc. in typical American high schools, expressing their love for colour guard, the rush they get from performing and the friends they've made doing it. "We've never done it to live music before," enthused one student, who spoke for many; Contemporary Color was their chance to shine.
The sets worked best when paired with more emphatic, rhythm-centric music: a group from Mechanicsburg High School, in Pennsylvania, performed a stirring performance with ropes as chains to How to Dress Well's stuttering, R&B epic "How Could This Have Happened? (Version 2)," in which they slid around dramatically as they were, one by one, snatched and "imprisoned" behind a backlit black silk wall; Syracuse, New York's Brigadiers matched a rifle-centric performance with Zola Jesus's galloping, military snare-driven "Something Beautiful"; Somerville High School, from New Jersey, made ingenious use of a stepladder to Ad-Rock's space-funk musical accompaniment.
All of the schools performed well, and there were occasional moments — when a rifle snapped into somebody's hand as they caught it right on the beat; when a set of flags all swirled in unison; when a performer caught a spinning sword just where they meant to, without even looking at it — that sent shivers up the spine.
The standout, to my mind — though everybody seemed to have different favourites — was Trumbull, Connecticut's Alter Ego, whose performance was accompanied by Nico Muhly and Ira Glass's subtle, sparkling synth soundtrack, interwoven with samples from interviews with the performers that synced up perfectly with the performance. Like inner monologue, the samples came and went, as a musician onstage triggered samples of references to "sweaty palms" during a particularly difficult section of the performance, or playing a girl's explanation of the difficulty of grabbing the flag at the right time so as not to "hit my feet," just as she hopped over the flag staff in the centre of the floor. It was an elegant performance.
When the performances ended, all of the teams lined up to take a bow and accept applause, and they performed a short, simple flag-waving set as one, with all of their colours moving together as one, a simple but compelling symbol for the inclusive "sport of the arts."