“Ladies and gentlemen, America has changed,” David Byrne said Saturday as he introduced “I Was Changed” at the American debut of Contemporary Color at Barclays Center. And yes, what a week it was. Thoughts turned to diversity and understanding as Quebec color-guard troupe Les Eclipses formed a diagonal line and hugged one another for the opening of the song, performed by Byrne, St. Vincent and Lucius.
Over three years after its conception, Byrne’s take on the “sport of the arts” paired 10 elite teams of flag-spinning nerds with avant-indie stars (including St. Vincent, Zola Jesus, Devonte Hynes, Money Mark, Ad-Rock, and tUnE-yArDs) for what might’ve been the preeminent performance-art piece of the year. Commissioned by BAM and Luminato Festival, the unusual pairing of contemporary music and the sport of color guard was executed with the help of a full “house” band.
As was explained to me by devotees in the audience, color guard is not just twirling. Whether independent or collegiate, it’s a highly competitive and selective sport that combines flag spinning with sharp performance elements, including custom tarps and elegant, ballet-esque movements. Even the set up and breakdown is a well-oiled performance piece.
The difficulty of the sport came to light during a performance of Nico Muhly’s “What Are You Thinking?”, which incorporated audio of Ira Glass’s interviews with Alter Ego, the Connecticut troupe that accompanied the song. The confessional interviews showed how teenagers strive to focus amidst thoughts of parents dying and other such preoccupations. Between each team’s set, lo-fi educational videos further shed light on the sport.
Then there were the performances, each with its own title. During “Lunatic,” St. Vincent performed a version of “Everyone You Know Will Go Away” while Pennsylvania’s Field of View evoked a psych ward via pearly white uniforms and benches that resembled gurneys.
For “Unexpected Elevations,” Jersey’s Somerville High School danced around a ladder while Ad-Rock and Money Mark debuted the first bit of music to emerge from the Beastie Boys camp since the death of member Adam “MCA” Yauch in 2012. “Quattro Mentos” was a waltz/rock opera written by Horovitz and Mark Nishita, featuring violin and bell solos.
Though Kelis was originally slated to perform her song “Something Beautiful,” it instead fell on Zola Jesus, who previously shared the stage with Byrne over a year ago for Jherek Bischoff’s Contemporaneous show at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Her expansive vocals and the house band’s marching percussion were perfectly in sync with replica rifles tossed in the air by Upstate NY’s Brigadiers.
Dev Hynes sang “What We Leave Behind” while his teammates, dressed in uniforms of white, purple and baby blue, pranced and spun flags on an oceanic tarp. Things started to feel a little like an underwater disco as the man behind Blood Orange cooed, “Did you even notice, do you really want to.”
Later, Hynes, along with tUnE-yArDs, joined nearly forgotten powerhouse Nelly Furtado and her fellow Canadians, Ventures, for “World Premiere,” which was indeed a world premiere.
For “Beautiful Mechanical,” the tarp belonging to New Jersey’s Emanon troupe displayed a gigantic power button — presumably the source of the house band’s space-age brass and the animalistic calls emitted by Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. She was joined by Lucius and How To Dress Well for “Body Code.”
In true competition fashion, each coach escorted his or her team to the floor, one at a time, for the grand finale, a rainbow spectacle of waving flags, glitter and streamers. Chatting off to the side, Glass and St. Vincent seemed pleased as they took in the applause. Along with Byrne and their other collaborators, they’re to be credited for elevating color guard to a higher ground.