David Byrne Teams Color Guard Squads With Indie Musicians

Via The Wall Street Journal

By Steve Dollar

Anyone, reasoned Aela Baldric, can twirl a flag.

“It’s what you do underneath it, and with it,” she said, “that makes color guard color guard.”

The New Jersey high-school junior, a member of the world-champion Somerville High School color-guard team, is skilled in what its fans call “the sport of the arts.” The kinetic mix of dance, acrobatics and precision drill, once associated with the military, has become a staple of high-school football games. It also is a competitive indoor spectacle, known as winter guard.

Now it is the focus of “Contemporary Color,” which unfurls Saturday and Sunday at the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn, in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Conceived by performer and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, the show pairs 10 top color-guard teams of 20- or 30-odd members with an assortment of musicians—including St. Vincent, Tune-Yards, Nelly Furtado and Devonté Hynes—performing new songs composed for the routines.

If the concept sounds like a strange one for Mr. Byrne, he would agree. The singer only became aware of color guard in 2008, when a team that had used music composed by Mr. Byrne sent him a courtesy video of their performance. “I thought ‘What the hell is this?’ How could this be all happening and I’ve never even heard of it?”

Soon enough, he was flying off to attend competitions—and had an idea.

“Here’s this incredibly creative thing that’s going on outside of the mainstream art and performance and whatever world,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be fun to expose it to the jaded New Yorkers? Maybe it would lift it up a notch and make it more exciting if there were great contemporary musicians who had written music for their routines.”

Those routines go far beyond sequined razzle-dazzle. The Shenendehowa High School team from Clifton Park, N.Y. which performs with the Brooklyn indie-pop band Lucius, has created a tribute to film director Alfred Hitchcock—including props inspired by his classic thriller “Psycho.”

“They’re bringing out shower stalls,” Mr. Byrne said.

Not to be outdone, Field of View, a team from West Chester, Pa., portrays inmates in a mental hospital in the routine “Lunatic,” accompanied by Annie Clark, who performs with the name St. Vincent.

The production launches a new, continuing collaboration between BAM and the Barclays Center.

“We formed a partnership to create these large-scale things that would work in an arena setting, but be quite different than what you would normally see,” said Karen Hopkins, BAM president, who anticipates at least a few such endeavors every year. “This is too big to fit in a traditional theater.”

“Some teams specialize more in abstract movement, some tend to tackle issues more, some use more props and odd bits of equipment,” Mr. Byrne said. Though vestiges of the form’s martial origins remain, “they’ve taken it to someplace else and they’ve gotten creative with it.”

The musical performers, accustomed to the spotlight, find themselves in a secondary role. “We’re serving their vision,” said Nika Roza Danilova, who performs as Zola Jesus. She is working with Brigadiers, from the Syracuse, N.Y., area. “So that’s exciting too. That’s a different kind of performance than probably we’re all used to.”

Ira Glass, the host and producer of public-radio program “This American Life,” interviewed a dozen members of the Alter Ego team from Trumbull, Conn., for their performance. Nico Muhly composed music to accompany their voices.

“What’s going through their heads is astonishingly technical,” Mr. Glass said. “They’re doing a thing that any dance performer does, which is try to express with a lot of feeling, while also remembering the structure of the dance and the beats and the counting. Only in their case, the beats and the counting are way more intense than for a normal dance troupe.”

The teams, which include both high-school and independent outfits, push their bodies to the limit.

“The kids have to have physicals to try out now because so many kids were ending up in the emergency room,” said Joe Harris, director of the Somerville team. Parents express concern, he said, “when they see the saber for the first time. But they become comfortable. There’s training. There’s a process.”

It is transformative for the teenage team members. “I feel like I found the thing I’m supposed to be doing,” said Mikayla Shamy, 18, the team’s senior captain. “In eighth grade I was really shy, but I learned how to work hard and built my confidence up in freshman year, and it was just going up from there.”

The Somerville team will perform the routine “Unexpected Elevations,” with music by Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys and Money Mark. The piece involves a lot of complex maneuvers with ladders and accelerates to its finish. “People always recognize us for a very dramatic show,” said Lexi Rodriguez, 17, a five-year member of the team.

Color guard hasn’t caught up to cheerleading in popularity, Mr. Harris said. But maybe Mr. Byrne and “Contemporary Color” will give it a boost.

“Finally, someone had the heart to say, ‘Oh my gosh, people really need to know about this,” said Ms. Baldric, 16, “and actually did something about it.”

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