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From Talking Heads to Twirling Flags: Behind the Scenes of David Byrne’s ‘Contemporary Color’

We sat in on a rehearsal for the legendary musician's ambitious color guard project that arrives this week in Toronto and Brooklyn.

David Byrne with the Ventures Guard. Photo via Twitter user Ventures Guard

I'm sitting in a music studio on the top floor of an unmarked warehouse in Hell's Kitchen. The space is packed with monitors, a massive soundboard, instruments, and about 25 people. David Byrne stands behind me. Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs perches next to me on a folding chair. In front of us is an expansive band playing a swirling, hypnotic score by composer Nico Muhly. Despite all that's going on around me, I'm transfixed by a YouTube video. On the computer screen, the renowned color guard team Alter Ego performs their program "Let It Begin with Me." Voices run atop Muhly's music, which is perfectly in sync to Alter Ego's routine.

NPR's Ira Glass occasionally asks a question in his familiar reedy tone and halting cadence—"what the hardest part?" Mostly, though, the young performers provide a running commentary of their set as it happens, announcing the moves, discussing the amount of commitment and sacrifice it takes to master this "sport of the arts," sharing what it means to be a junior member on the team with performers you've admired for so long—"the person you look up to is spinning right next to you!"

At the end of the song, the young men and women, a variety of colors and body shapes, stand facing the audience each with one arm outstretched while a young woman arches her back to the sky in a gesture both supplicatory and demonstrative. The notes of the score fade, and for a beat, the room falls silent.

I lock eyes with Garbus. Her hand is on her heart, and she's clearly moved. "Fuck, man," she says to me.

There's not much more to say than that.

St. Vincent (Annie Clark) at Friday's rehearsal in Manhattan. Photo by LeeAnn Rossi. Courtesy of Todo Mundo Ltd

In 2008, a color guard team asked David Byrne's permission to use a song from his stunning orchestral piece The Forest, a 1988 collaboration with theater visionary Robert Wilson inspired by both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Industrial Revolution. Intrigued, he requested a video of their performance. The team sent him a DVD of the world championship, and he was blown away by the skill and expressiveness of this vernacular form that he had never heard anyone talk about in either the refined or hipster art worlds of New York City.

Byrne went to Dayton, Ohio, to attend a championship himself, and came up with an idea—what would happen if composers created original work for the routines, which are usually set to montages of soundtrack music or song snippets mixed with spoken-word elements, such as excerpts from recorded speeches. Byrne thought this collision might yield something unique, an event that, in this age of downloadable, easily disseminated, pocket-sized commodities would be a unique theatrical experience, a blend of amazing physicality accompanied by a full band and human voice.

If you're at all familiar with Byrne's career, this impulse should come as no surprise. Theatricality lies at the heart of his performances. As Byrne writes in his book How Music Works, even Talking Heads' earliest gigs as a stripped-down trio in 1976 were driven by an awareness that the context in which the performance occurs shapes the performance itself. The band's spartan, groove-forward sound fit CBGB's intimate environs, while their preppy young-Republican look helped them stand out from the punks. Later, the Kabuki-influenced big suit of the Stop Making Sense tour, a show in which the stage was assembled before the audience's eyes, was an oversized spectacle suitable for stadium crowds.

After years of planning, the result of Byrne's brainstorm—Contemporary Color, featuring ten color guard routines set to original music composed and performed by How to Dress Well, Devonté Hynes, Lucius, Money Mark and Ad-Rock, St. Vincent, Zola Jesus, and others—is about to be unveiled tonight at Toronto's Air Canada Centre as part of the Luminato Festival, and this weekend at Brooklyn's Barclay's Center, in association with the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Contrary to those mega venues, the rehearsal room is unadorned, covered in maroon and yellow soundproofing pads, stuffed end to end by the band on one side and technicians on the other. Strings and horns occupy a corner, guitars and synthesizers another. The drummers, including Byrne's longtime percussionist Mauro Refosco, stand in the center. Byrne assigned every composer a color guard team to work with, but each piece of the puzzle didn't quite know what the other pieces were up to, which is why the area around the computer table is crowded. Everyone wants to get a sense of what the show will look like assembled, and this is one of the last full run-throughs before it goes live.

Devonté Hynes.Photo by LeeAnn Rossi. Courtesy of Todo Mundo Ltd

Byrne is a silent and polite master of ceremonies. He makes sure I have a prime seat and finds me a headset so I can tap into the house mix, then resumes his position in the center rear of the room, where he taps his feet to the music. After Merrill Garbus gets up, Nelly Furtado, sipping a coffee, takes her place. Soon, Zola Jesus joins us. Furtado asks why I'm taking notes. When I tell her I'm press, she nods politely but angles herself away from me. Jesus disappears into her phone. I get it, and don't intrude. They're at work. By and large the composers are, like me, quiet observers, though Garbus sometimes hums and skats a bit, extending the previous song into the pause in perfect tonal mimicry, as though she were a mockingbird unable to stop herself from singing. In general, the rehearsal atmosphere is pleasant and collegial, but there's no time for fooling around—things move at a good clip.

The collaborations between color guard teams and composers have happened at a distance. The composers tried to create work that as much as possible matched the routines, so the teams wouldn't have to come up with new sets. Some routines did end up changing a bit based on the music—and Furtado's team developed an entirely original routine for her song—but for the most part, this is a game of timing. The musicians and teams won't have much opportunity to practice together in person, so the band has been aiming to sync their music to the videos of the teams' performances while the teams have been working for months to coordinate their movements to the tracks. In theory, it should come together with minimal bumps. During this run-through, the band only pauses briefly between songs, as they will at the show. In these rests, Jumbotrons will show short documentary pieces about color guard, the teams, and the composers.

Read about color guard and you're going to get a mistaken impression. The teams effortlessly spin and toss chunky wooden rifles and metal sabers. At the most climatic parts, they twirl flags in the air. It sounds patriotic and militaristic—about as elegant as the football games during which these spectacles take place. But Contemporary Color is composed of winter-guard routines. Winter guard is color guard's funky cousin. These sets are performed in auditoriums on the off-season, to a discerning, eagle-eyed crowd watching from above. Imagine Busby Berkeley meets Balanchine meets Beyoncé, equal parts contemporary dance and sis-boom-bah spectacle.

David Byrne with the Ventures Guard. Photo via Twitter user The Knot Group

The flags are not blunt tools. Just as in a Chinese ribbon dance, their fabric unfurls and waves. The material moves in slow-motion, rippling and undulating in rhythm to the music, water that's been given shape in the air. During Black Watch's oceanic piece set to sumptuous music by Devonté Hynes, the teams raise their flags in quiet, maritime swells, defying not just our expectations, but the conventions of the form itself, where the flags are usually trotted out for bigger effect.

The rifle tosses and spins don't just happen vertically—they go laterally, and diagonally, passing between team members, while the performers flip and somersault as their implements fly, catching them after executing perfect landings. Amidst it all, the team moves in balletic harmony, or, as in the final program of the night, Emanon's "Beautiful Mechanical"—an I, Robot routine about machinery—they pop and lock like it's showtime on the Q train. That mesmerizing program is set to a dense, sci-fi inflected tUnE-yArDs composition, which begins with vocal sampling layered so thick the percussion transforms into an almost choral melody.

With 11 recording artists, ten teams with a total of 300 performers, and one Ira Glass, it's taken a significant administrative effort putting Contemporary Color together. "What do you think?" one of the organizers asks me at one point between songs. He's a burly guy, and he stands close, as does Byrne, who, though looking away, has his head cocked and gives every impression of listening. That's how Byrne's been the whole rehearsal. Quiet, but always on the move, aware, and good humored as well, rolling his eyes when he's unable to remember the words to his own song, donning reading glasses to search through print-outs of music to find them. Their curiosity seems legit—I am, at this point, one of the first people outside the project to see it.

"I love it," I say.

"Would you have the balls to tell me if you didn't?" he retorts.

David Byrne.Photo by LeeAnn Rossi. Courtesy of Todo Mundo Ltd

But I'm not lying. I do love this stuff. I'm primed to love it, perhaps from having had a life-long relationship to Byrne's genre-bending work itself. Under his microscope, art forms as disparate as Latin music, opera, Afrobeat, and disco get examined playfully but formally, dissected and re-stitched into something unique and wonderfully unusual. Not unlike winter guard itself.

Byrne's blending color guard with live music elevates both. The songs, even when they hew toward film-score tracks, are given life by the dancers. And the music creates narratives out of the routines, so that characters emerge and the emotions on display deepen and take on new resonance. Mechanicsburg High School in Pennsylvania's "Every 40 Seconds," about abducted and lost kids, is downright creepy set to an arrangement by How to Dress Well that features the mournful tones of a children's choir. In other collaborations, the score and routine create a fascinating texture. Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, New York's Hitchcock-inspired routine recreates iconic scenes from Psycho (complete with portable showers) and The Birds (with a jungle gym and flags bearing raven-head insignias). It veers wonderfully toward camp, but Lucius's eerie melody pulls it back, highlighting the conceit's cleverness and darkness. Byrne's contribution is a hymn-like pop song that sounds as if it draws inspiration from his years-long interest in color guard. "How could I know I could be lifted this high?" he sings.

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Well, the color guard teams make such lifts and tricks look easy, but toward the end of rehearsal, while the band bangs out the rousing finale, Money Mark runs into the room with a flag propped on his shoulder. It's about five-feet long, large and unwieldy. He nearly takes out a hanging light while prancing back and forth with it. The show's producer, LeeAnn Rossi, and associate producer Chris Giarmo, who have been immersed in the world of color guard for three years now, get cheers by demonstrating the most basic of flag moves.

Byrne, who had been dancing in place behind me, laughs. For a moment, the pace slacks, everyone releases a breath. Then someone says, "We going to run through this thing again?" and it's back to work.

David Byrne's Contemporary Color will be at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Monday and Tuesday, June 22 and 23, and at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Saturday and Sunday, June 27 and 28.

Brian Gresko's work has appeared on Salon, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and Guernica. He is the editor of When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood (Penguin Books, 2014). Follow Brian on Twitter.