by Lynn on June 23, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ont.

David Byrne, musical mover and shaker, got the idea for Contemporary Colour when a high school winter guard group wanted to use his music for one of their shows. He was sent a DVD of the result and was blown away. He refers to what he saw as “a vernacular art and performance form…”

Historically colour guards were soldiers who protected the flag (and its colours) as the troops went into battle. Might and precision were shown when rifles and sabers were thrown in the air and caught in unison. Flag twirling was involved as well.

Over time the precision of these military groups morphed into high school bands using this type of performance (saber, rifle flipping and flag twirling). And finally the groups that did the precision performance with these props branched off to become known as winter guard groups.

David Byrne realized that these kinds of groups are big in American high schools. He thought it would be interesting to create a show where he would match 10 high school winter guard groups with contemporary musicians who would create original music for the group and the show. The result is Contemporary Colour in which each high school group does its routine, for the most part accompanied live, by the musician who wrote the music. So people like Nelly Furtado (the only Canadian) wrote her song for Ventures (from Kitchener-Waterloo), one of two Canadian groups on the bill. Les Éclipses (from Quebec) is the other Canadian group. They performed to David Byrne singing his own composition. The other groups are from the U.S. The exception of the composer-creators performing live are composer Nico Muhly and radio host Ira Glass. The group Alter Ego performed to their music

While each winter guard group is distinct they all seem to use predominantly the same props—flags of varying colours, prop sabres and prop rifles. They all twirl the flags in various formations and throw the sabers and rifles to dizzying heights and then catch them effortlessly. Some groups use benches on which they jump and flip. Another group also used lengths of rope.

They all have costumes and floor coverings that apparently augment their show. All the groups are predominantly white, with a few exception.

We are told each group has a theme and kind of storyline, although I thought any theme seemed to be obscured in the frenzy of throwing the sabers, rifles and flags. One group ended with a young man snapping a clap-board (one of those boards used to snap shut when a filmed scene was to begin and later to signify when it ended). Are we to figure that the whole routine is a film? Mystifying.

Two groups ended with a man and a woman racing across the great expanse of the Air Canada Centre into each others’ arms as if there had been some story before hand to explain this embrace, and there wasn’t. Again, mystifying.

One group uses a robot theme. They all stated as robots, lurching around the space, sabers, flags and rifles flung. At the end they all appear to have changed from robot to be human, with one young man gracefully forming a balletic pose at the end. That is quite moving.

There is much precision in not only the performances but also the changing from one ‘set’ to the next. One group quickly folds up its floor covering; gathers the props of sabers, rifles and flags and leaves as the next group sets up.

To fill this time, a video segment flashes on a screen on either side of the performing space. A tuxedo-wearing, flashy-coiffed host gives us glimpses into the backstage goings on. There are spliced segments where David Byrne tries to explain what the evening is about, and what colour guard is. Each segment more inarticulate than the next. Later Byrne says that he wanted a kind of sweeping sound to conclude the piece. The most entertaining segments are several interviews with Nico Muhly and Ira Glass as they thread their way into creating their piece for Alter Ego.

The problem is that these segments seem random instead of being played before the piece to which they are referring. If they had, then the audience would be privy to the creative process and how it applies to what they are watching. An interesting telling moment comes with one of the musicians of Lucius saying that she wrote the song in a day, and the director of the group the song is for (Shenendehowa High School) saying that it took the group 26 weeks of rehearsing to achieve their level of expertise. Another problem is that it would have been helpful to actually hear the lyrics of the songs accompanying these groups. But the sound is geared to rock concert mode so that’s not possible.

I couldn’t help but notice—in spite of two Canadian winter guard groups—that Canada is so different from the United States.

For all the effort and precision of these young high school groups and how far they have come from the original intent—to fly the colours and rah rah the boys off to battle—the vestiges are still there. They still twirl flags, and flip sabers and rifles. As we fill into the ACC the video screens flash the title Contemporary Colour but they also show rifles rotating in the centre of the screen. I am incredulous at that.

Sorry, Mr. Byrne. I don’t find this vernacular art or a new performance form. Considering what has gone on in the last several weeks in particular with our good neighbour to the south, Contemporary Colour is insensitive and tasteless. It’s something you can’t take out of context from what is going on there and to do so is disrespectful.

Commissioned by Luminato and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Run: June 22-23, 2015
Running Time: 2 hours.

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