Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Living Through The Renaissance of Winter Guard



The definition of the word renaissance means "rebirth." It is a renewal of life and an awakening of creativity and discovery. Some say that without the European Renaissance and its exploration of the human spirit, the modern civilized world would not be so civilized. Who or what would we be without Michelangelo's David or Leonardo da Vinci's, Mona Lisa? Literature, art, architecture, science, astronomy, and idea's came to life and set the stage for a new and modern world that is unmatched even today. It was the Renaissance that gave us the flush toilet, microscope and printing press...ALL inventions that not just influence our daily lives, but allow us to live as educated and articulate human beings. My God! Who would we be without the brilliance and free flow of ideas of that time? Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante. We are who we are because of these men. We still write books and make movies based on concepts and ideals of the literature of the Renaissance. It was the Renaissance that gave us Descartes who said, "I think therefore I am," and Shakespeare that said, "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."

There once was a time when we as an activity experienced our own Renaissance. It was during the great Renaissance of Winter Guard that brought us tarp covered gym floors. We explored our bodies and space in ways never even considered at that time. We fed off of each other. In this time frame sometime in the decade between the late 80's and 90's, we educated ourselves on the intricacies of dance. The process of training changed to address space, time, weight, and flow. Lower body contributions started to enhance the equipment book as designers explored the concepts between drill and dance. At this time, costuming became an element of the design and not just an afterthought. Production value was a topic of great importance as many of us struggled to find our voice in the realm of this new General Effect. Painting floors grew to be an art form and then all of a sudden, Ensemble Analysis judges were discussing the "use of the floor" and the "changing of the stage" in reference to the tarp.

In the decade of the Renaissance, the activity freely explored music, It was a time before "THE LIST" came out and all music was up for grabs. With this exploration of music, soundtrack design became a topic over cocktails at the bar. Creativity in the World Class was expected and desired by the audience. The guards had unique looks and their shows spoke to identity first and the sheets second. We knew when walking through the parking lot of warm-up in Dayton, who was who. The Alliance of Miami looked vastly different than the San Jose Raiders and the San Jose Raiders looked vastly different than Blessed Sacrament. The shows were wicked exciting and finals gave us significant levels of diversity in approach and effect. I'll never, ever forget the year Bishop Kearney did Sybil. We all sat at headquarters like, "OMG! That bitch cut her hair!" And speaking of headquarters, it was even different back then. You think it was a party atmosphere now??? Well.........

I think though, my favorite part of the decade between 1989 and 1999, was that for the most part, a person who wanted to be a part of the activity at the World level could. The world staff's were fairly young, with minimal guidance. The judges and instructors were learning right along with each other and we were allowed to actually talk to each other. That dialog between judge and instructor...friends...was an invaluable element to the growth of the art. Every year brought something new, whether it was Blessed Sacrament exploring music subtlety in 1989 or San Jose exploring the movie soundtrack in 1992. I myself was a staff member at Shaktai in 1998 when the phrase, "Random Acts of Colorguard" was coined. Those random acts landed us in 6th place and you still see hints of it today. Looking back, it seems that exploration as an art was not just for those ranked the highest, but an expected norm in all the classes. At the time, staff members and performers stayed together...for years. You knew who taught who and where. Individual guards had styles and those styles stayed within that guard. It was also a time when making money on the back of the activity was rare. Some people did, but most didn't. It was a time before Pyware completely took over drill design, everyone owned a costume company, silks were produced at a premium cost and floors were designed in another state. This Renaissance forced us to learn to paint floors, sew flags, and design our own shows. With those skills, we were able to get dirty with the discovery of art. Most of us didn't hire big name designers. Some did, but it was a time in the activity that the average person could achieve finalist status in at least one of the classes with a little hard work, creativity, and technical training. We even designed technical programs that fit our style of show. We were forced to learn our craft! 

Now I know how I sound. "The old lady who walked in the snow to rehearsal, counting the show on an abacus," but that's not it. There is so much value to what is being achieved today. Kids today can out spin, out dance, and out perform any one of our guards from 1994. The designs border on professional art and we are now truly a performance entity first and colorguard second. I don't think this is a bad thing. I believe in evolution and I believe in change. The activity however, exists at its current state because of the Renaissance. You only see hints of it now, but it's there every time a floor is pulled out and a grande jete' under a sabre toss creates a moment of effect.

I'm writing this today, because for the past several years I've seen a trend of young people lacking an understanding of where their craft is truly derived from. I myself often pay homage to those that came before me. The activity is at an impasse. When you look at the A Class finalists from the past several years, it's rare to find a unit that got there without the paid help of a designer, not affiliated with the area the kids come from and its rare for those units to not be designed by an individual from the Renaissance age of the activity. It's hard to find a World guard that can sustain themselves in finals for multiple years in a row and when they do, their extraordinary budgets force them out faster than they hoped. Kids in the world class today are not kids. They are adults who border on professional dancer. We are in a dearth of training, because we have spent a decade focused on paid design over learning the process of spinning and those kids who are now adults, are struggling to understand how the equipment works. Part of this is because, as the activity becomes more sophisticated at its core, we aren't having the dialog needed to aid the instructor who marched World Class in this day of high design, transfer that refined design to the skills necessary for an awkward 14 year old to be successful.

We are in a time where there is a guard on every corner, allowing the performers to move on as soon as something doesn't go their way. We are in a time when there aren't enough staff members to sustain weekend rehearsals, because many are working first at the average high school that pays and the independent program that doesn't, second. Kids don't age out anymore, so failure and opportunity to learn doesn't come at  the ripe old age of 22 as it used to, but at 26 and 30 and 35.

If we as an activity are to see a new Renaissance, the young people of today must explore their own ideas and own failures. They must be allowed to achieve success in their own names. Now I'm not sure how to do this, since the A Class is not really a training class any longer and kids truly can leave any program and walk down the street to the next when they don't make finals. When staff members are trying to make a living off of the activity, without paying their dues working for free at the one program that allows them to play and explore, then they are forced into a system of accountability that comes with a salary, that they might not be ready for. In the end, what we get is a lot of average looking guards, that have moderate level training, moderate level design, and who all look very similar to each other. We have brilliance in this activity. It's absolute brilliance that I can't often wrap my head around, but much of that brilliance is coming from those of an earlier time. Some people might say this is a cruel statement, but the truth is hard and maybe when the activity starts exploring at deeper levels of their history and their present, then we will be able to truly move into the future.

Finally, let's always remember the lessons of the past and the words of Michelangelo, "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."