By Gia Kourlas
The glory of color guard is awesome: Teenagers of all shapes and sizes swirl flags and toss sabers and rifles into the air with nimble grace and wide-open hearts. Color guard performers cross the line between dancer and athlete, sustaining an American folk art that persists through passion. Now, in David Byrne, they have a cheerleader.
In “Contemporary Color,” a copresentation of Barclays Centerin Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Mr. Byrne hasorganized collaborations among 10 elite color guard teams and recording artists, including St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado and Devonté Hynes. Between acts, the showcase, performed on Saturday at Barclays Center, included video clips making it clear that for many students, color guard is a way to find like-minded souls in what can be the most harrowing of American experiences: high school.
The idea to pair color guard with live music is an intriguing one, but the results don’t entirely click. One exception was the pairing of Somerville High School in New Jersey with Money Mark and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys whose music, not unlike that of a marching band, grew in power. But too much of the music was on the slow side, suffocating the routines and making it apparent that the earnestness of the performers clashed with the musicians who had difficulty shedding their personas. They may have been in bands in high school, but it didn’t feel as if they had ever been band geeks.
There were also perplexing storytelling numbers. The team Field of View, from West Chester, Pa., and St. Vincent collaborated on “Lunatic,” which was set in a mental hospital. The performers stumbled around, amid saber tosses, trying to look deranged. Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School, from Pennsylvania, and the singer-songwriter How to Dress Well presented “Every 40 Seconds,” a reference — as ropes and disappearing performers indicated — to child abduction. Social commentary is part of contemporary color guard, but these numbers were deflating for all the wrong reasons. What was the original music? Would it have made for a better fit?
Despite the unevenness, the program couldn’t suppress the team spirit, where emotional dancing is the norm and bent knees are forgiven. Through interviews, Ira Glass and Nico Muhly, in a collaboration with Alter Ego, from Trumbull, Conn., brought us into the minds of the performers by creating a soundtrack of their inner dialogue while they executed moves. (Mr. Glass used the same tactic in a production with the choreographer Monica Bill Barnes; it worked well then and now.)
Every rifle tossed high into the air is a leap of faith; every missed catch, a small heartbreak. When it comes together — flags waving like sails, a saber caught behind the back, the satisfying weight of a rifle as it lands solidly in the palms — the devotion makes sense.