Contemporary Color

Talking Heads frontman and art-rock icon David Byrne put together an extraordinary performance in the summer of 2015. Gathering together some of the most interesting and highly creative musicians of modern indie music – St. Vincent, Devonte Hynes, tune-yards and How To Dress Well amongst others, as well as Byrne himself, and pairing them with high school and local groups of Color Guard teams, Byrne put together a multi-medium arts spectacular and a testament to cross-cultural collaboration and the importance of arts programmes in high-schools.

Color Guard, for the uninitiated, is an American creative subculture that is yes to reach beyond public high schools – although this seems entirely subject to change after the release of this film; as the costume designer for one of these teams remarks; ‘soon it’ll be a new crave, like pole dancing; you’ll get adult women saying ‘let’s take a colour guard class!’ The sport itself is a mix of cheerleading, military display, and contemporary dance, incorporating flags, bayonets and prop rifles into complex, often gymnastic dance routines. The culture itself seems to occupy a very different place in the high-school hierarchy to its sister sport, cheerleading; some teams are made up of fresh-faced, athletic girls, all long, straight hair and high school sweaters, the typical popular archetype; but others seem to be a place of refuge for the outsiders, a mix of queer kids with brightly-dyed hair, plucky, confident theatre types, and former wallflowers who’ve found somewhere to come out of their shell. One of the most touching moments in the film is a conversation between Annie Clark of St. Vincent and Jess Wolfe of art-pop and Lucius, as Jess remarks quietly ‘this is so important to these kids, you know. And they’re not exactly the prom queens in their high schools which, you know, I can definitely relate.

The performances themselves are a riot of colour and sound. The use of flags and props amongst the gymnastics give the performances a carnivalesque, tumbling, circus affair, and the amount of talent displayed amongst so many young kids is extraordinary. I sincerely hope the production company make the smart business decision to release an album of the music used in these performances, too; each song is a fantastic example of the work of their respective artist, all taking on an extra layer of theatricality knowing they’ll be the springboard for a choreographer. The stand-out track by far is a collaboration between composer Nico Muhly and journalist Ira Glass; combining Muhly’s triumphant ambient music with snippets of interviews with their team of performers, the dancers narrative their own performance as it unfolds in front of us, taking jus through their anxieties, nervous moments and victories, and the effect is spellbinding. A great directorial flourish from the Ross’ comes into it’s greatest effect here; some performances are interspersed with quiet film of a single dancer rehearsing at twilight in their neighbourhood, backyard, or garage. The most touching of these moments comes when one young dancer reveals the death of her father only weeks earlier, just as she steps into the spotlight. As she moves silently, with graceful determination around her half-lit back-yard she tells us, voice wavering, how her father never missed a single of of her shows; and how her team came together around her in her moment of crisis. When the lights come up at the end of the triumphant performance, she is both grinning and crying, tears running through the stage glitter on her cheeks.

Contemporary Color is a concert film like no other. Exuberant, dreamlike, joyous and charming, it cements David Byrne’s status as a national treasure of pop culture, and is a testament to the importance of high school arts programmes as a place of safety for the weird.


Clare Patterson

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