Odds are that you either intensely love color guard or barely know what it is. This hybrid of dance, gymnastics, and marching band is the not-quite-fringe obsession that might inspire a Christopher Guest comedy. Talking Heads maestro David Byrne is among its admirers, and in the summer of 2015 he coordinated an event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center that merged color guard routines—involving elaborate choreography with sabers, rifles, flags, and rope—with the live accompaniment of notable performers such as St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, Ira Glass, Adam Horovitz, and Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange).
Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’s Contemporary Color follows Byrne’s event, capturing the concert as well as its attending backstage ecosystem, which is clearly as much of a draw for the musician as the art itself. Pacing the Barclays Center throughout the documentary, Byrne suggests a behind-the-curtain M.C. Like David Lynch, Byrne craves inhabitable art, savoring the kinship of creation that’s shared between collaborating artists, which is an element of life that’s explicitly known by a color guard team.
There’s a sense of whimsy to Contemporary Color, an impression that it exists because Byrne is a legend who can afford to devote his energies to whatever strikes him. And there are also impressions of empathy and generosity: Byrne is playing the role of rectifier, shining a light on an art that reflects his own taste for ecstatic theatricality and, by extension, his yearning for actual democracy. (Byrne’s own song here corresponds pointedly with the national legalizing of same-sex marriage, an elation that has a bitter aftertaste with the subsequent rise of our country’s fascist regime.)
The Rosses share Byrne’s interest in the minutiae of habitats and the comforting enclosure they provide along with the discomfiting constriction of anonymity. The filmmaker brothers have a palpable hunger for the textures of faces and bodies in motion. Color guard depends, of course, on one’s ability to blend in with their team, achieving an excellence of communism, which is refuted, somewhat, in Contemporary Color by the celebrity musicians who preside like compassionate gods over the worshipful teams.
The film, though, complicates this relationship. When St. Vincent performs with Field of View, a color guard team from Westchester, Pennsylvania, their number climaxes in an astonishing image in which close-ups of individual team members simultaneously overlap both a central medium shot of St. Vincent and a master shot of the team’s performance, creating a tapestry in which notions of self and community are emphasized in harmony.
As Jonathan Demme did with Stop Making Sense, the Ross brothers are intent on making a film, rather than offering literal-minded coverage of an event. This ambition isn’t as straightforward as it may sound, as cinematic compositions could potentially squander our awareness of the excellence of the performances, while dutiful lensing of the dances may make for uninvolving filmmaking. The Rosses utilize a series of fades—synced with the songs—that bridge the music to the dancing. (The color guard teams had only a day to rehearse with their music, which was written nearly on-the-fly.)
Dev Hynes’s show-stopping number, a moody longing for connection, is linked by the filmmakers to a lonely cityscape, which bleeds into close-ups of the guard’s flags moving rapturously through the air. Ira Glass and Nico Muhly’s collaboration with the team Alter Ego relies an aural bridging, in which interviews with the guard members are heard over the routine, achieving an effect of transcendence: We’re hearing of the dancers’ struggles while witnessing their poignant refining of the art.
The music is superb, with its frequent suggestions of isolation and acceptance, and with its overridingly sensual sense of percussion, and these obscure, devoted dancers more than honor its force. One number that features a rope as a prop, and in which dancers are “snatched” from off stage, has the haunting poetry of a fairy tale, while another number involving robotic imagery suggests the contemporary techno-invasion of the world.
Throughout, the Rosses alternate these pieces with droll and beautiful anecdotes. We see a dancer immediately off stage after one number, hunched on the floor, catching her breath, looking into the camera as if to say, “What now?” We see the event’s host, Mike Hartsock, gamely, comically trying to fit the elastic and ambiguous color guard definitively into the sports box, asking dancers about their feelings immediately after their performance, when they’re too spent and ecstatic to ponder anything but the purity of their actualization. The filmmakers understand that it’s this state that’s pursued and craved by all artists, no matter how unknown or famous.