If you’ve ever been to a high school or college football game, chances are you’ve seen a color guard. It’s hard to say what genre of visual culture color guard belongs to: is it dance? Theater? Circus act? Military spectacle? David Byrne’s Contemporary Color is even harder to classify: besides flag, rifle, and saber twirling, this strange show — co-presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the Barclays Center (our first visit) — featured new music by Byrne and his friends composed specifically for the routines, as well as short films that took us backstage, documented the process of putting the show together, and told us a bit about the history and experience of color guard. However you want to categorize it, it was an experiment, and it was fun.
Byrne’s program notes sketch the event’s backstory: “I got a request in 2008 to use some music I’d written and recorded for a Robert Wilson collaboration I did in 1988 called The Forest (1988 Next Wave Festival). It’s orchestral music, largely instrumental and not that well known, so when what sounded like a dance troupe made up of high school and college-aged kids wanted to use it I said, ‘Yes, no charge.’ All I asked in return was a video of the performance, out of curiosity.”
Turns out the group was a color guard, and Byrne was “gobsmacked (as the English say)” by their performance. “I saw it as a vernacular art and performance form that had evolved outside the influence and pressure of the media gatekeepers in big cities.” The part he liked least was the music — perhaps because, being David Byrne, he’s picky. “The music use was sometimes familiar and sometimes inventive, but to be honest it wasn’t going to set the antennae of my NY friends aquiver. But, I thought to myself, LIVE music by cool contemporary acts would do that! What a tempting concept!”
Was Byrne wise to yield to this concept’s temptation? We’re not sure. Bringing together so many collaborators — 10 different color guards from the US and Canada, plus 10 “cool contemporary acts” — must have been a nightmarishly complex logistical task. Some of the pairings were marvelous. St. Vincent’s “Everyone You Know Will Go Away” helped West Chester, Pennsylvania’s Field of View create some memorably disturbing effects. Canadians Les Eclipses turned Byrne’s gospel-esque “I Was Changed” into a rousing spectacle.
Connecticut-based Alter Ego performed its routine to a soundtrack of interviews conducted by Ira Glass in which its members talk about what it’s like to be in a color guard: the camaraderie, the fear of dropping a rifle, the exhilaration of landing a move spot-on. The haunting effect reminded us of the Wooster Group’s Poor Theater (a play about what it’s like to be a theater group), especially because we had run into Wooster founding members Liz LeCompte and Kate Valk in the lobby before the show.
Like other school-based groups, color guards are fragile organisms, and it was mentioned more than once over the course of the evening that this was the last time many of these groups would perform together. For them, it must have been a singular and unforgettable experience, for which they have Byrne’s brilliantly eccentric sympathies — and of course their own talent and hard work — to thank. For those of us who left wondering what fruit their vernacular art form might bear in the big city, the answer can only be: we’ll see.
Contemporary Color was co-presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music at Barclays Center (620 Atlantic Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) on June 27–28.