Spotlight Series: What all the Babble’s About

I’m living in an age, that calls darkness light, though my language is dead, still the shapes fill my head.”  -Peter Gabriel, “My Body is a Cage”

The story of Babylon follows a united society riddled with greed. They built a tower to the heavens in an attempt to gain the ultimate power. When God became displeased with the negative intent and communication between the society, he destroyed the tower and scattered the language of the Babylonians. Further, he scattered them across the world so they had no method in which to communicate with each other. And despite having innumerable resources today through which to communicate, we still struggle with the punishment placed on the Babylonians. We live in a society in which everyone has a voice, but there is an unparalleled struggle in finding common ground to understand each other. The communication barrier seems more alive today than perhaps it ever has.  

Santa Clara Vanguard’s 2018 production “Babylon” explores these questions and conveys the truth that in a society riddled with messages, languages, and conflicts in which words almost always seem to fail, “music…serves as the building blocks to once again unite humanity.” Their show explores both the human disconnect as a result of the communication barrier and our “transcendent power to move beyond language.” With the amazing help of the design team, Michael Still, and drum major Carl Huang, we were able to gain a unique perspective on the show that fans can’t stop babbling about. Currently standing in 1st place, SCV has not only succeeded in communicating their message to the masses, but has served as role models for the lesson they teach.

Making Touchstone Architecture Meaningful Again

It is evident that SCV sought this season to push their members beyond the limits of artistic expression and communication. Through an urbanization of this ancient myth, the corps has been tasked with a responsibility to “react in unique ways to overcome the omnipresent barriers of speech.” This can be seen in every aspect of this production. And it all started with a cage. Andy Toth, visual coordinator for SCV, expresses that the inception of “Babylon” began with a desire to “try to change the environment, the space, that the performers were going to exist [in].” The stages represent everything in the original story of Babylon as well as the modern struggles society faces with the communication barrier. Toth states that “the set provides limitless opportunities for environmental changes and challenges” and is therefore a visual metaphor for their message.

The show uses a modern urban landscape to follow society’s progress from an inability to communicate, represented by the masks the members wear, to an era of nonverbal communication, to the celebrated unity that happens when a shared harmony and rhythm can help to rebuild this society. At the heart of this production is the song “My Body is a Cage” by Peter Gabriel. Paul Rennick, percussion caption head and music arranger, mentions in regards to the piece that “there was something in there that was a seed…for the entire show.” But each piece in the repertoire is so different from each other. Scott Koter, SCV Program Coordinator elaborates:

The challenge was making the wide spectrum of musical styles we desired cohesive and natural in the same show. Specifically, ensuring two modern brass band masterpieces, a rock n’ roll ballad with poignant lyrics and a “trap music” hit worked together from a believability and continuity standpoint.”

The marriage of discordant musical styles was one of the greatest challenges the design team faced in Babylon’s infant stages. Yet interestingly, they were artfully able to make these dissimilar voices into one. It is the truest test in our industry for breaking down the communication barrier and proving that seemingly discordant voices really have the same thing to say.

Responsibility and Ownership: The Learning Process

One of the beautiful things about this activity is not only the adaptability of the artists, but also that of the team tasked with turning these artists into spokesmen for their message both as a collective ensemble and in their individual performance. One of the 2018 performance goals for SCV was to build further on the fruitful risks taken in 2017. Ouroboros “unitized a wider variety of movement skills,” and the team wanted to take that to the next level this year. “We wanted to take advantage of the member ownership in terms of dance skills,” Koter notes, “so we made…those skills a more integral part of the selection process.” When the 2018 cast finally took the field for spring training in June, they understood that they had a diversely different role to play from one another. 

Teaching the production has required a more personalized approach. Matt Hartwell, Visual Caption Manager, explains that the process to teach the coordinates was no longer taught in the traditional “straight line path.” Instead, performers have an individualized responsibility to move from point A to point B. As a result, the production process was less like the traditional “visual block” and more of a theatrical staging process. Each section had moments that needed massaging, so much of the production schedule revolved around individual groups and establishing the quality of each vignette in order to create the cohesion of the ensemble. Hartwell states that “as soon as we’re teaching a…piece of choreography or a logistical idea…they have some meaning behind it. So we give them…the freedom to perform something that makes it theirs.” This adds sophistication to the program in which members must fill in the gaps. Michael Rosales, Lead Choreographer, goes further, expressing that the learning process has been more of a collaborative one. Members contribute to the creation of the choreography. They have more freedom to be artists. And Rosales loves this: “When you open up their freedom to express a little bit more, then you come up with something you didn’t think of.” Amazing that just by listening to the voices and experiences around you, you can find beauty in everyone’s perspective. 

Unique Voices Across the Field

There are so many reasons to fall in love with all the babble that is Santa Clara Vanguard this year. But as the production involves so much individual responsibility, we wanted to spotlight some of the elements that may very easily go unheard.

Interaction. Toth believes that one of the best features of the corps this year is their interaction with one another. It occurs through choreography, character, and storytelling, and this element makes Babylon “something worth experiencing.” Carl Huang, drum major for the 2018 cast, says that this doesn’t just happen on the field either. He has been inspired by the positivity of the corps off the field as well. “No negative is left as a negative because we are able to find good in any situation…by turning it into a learning moment.”

Athleticism. The endurance and drive needed to complete a show as challenging as “Babylon” doesn’t just happen at the beginning of the season. Huang explained to us that members have been working with their athletic trainer to complete an exercise program designed to help them throughout the challenge of the production. Watch them move on the field, and you’ll see what we mean.

Tidbits. Huang keys us in on some great moments in the show to be aware of as well. His favorite part of the show is the ballad as “being caught between the sound of the corps and the roar from the stands is something indescribable.” Further, he mentions that we all should pay attention to the mellophones on the Side 1 40 yardline during the opener. He hints that it is “one of the coolest moments of DCI this year.”

Our Partnership

This year, SCV is wearing the MTX marching shoe and the Ever-Jazz performance shoe. Michael Gaines explains that “aesthetically, the MTX works well with the lines we are trying to create.” Further, the team wanted a shoe that would allow members to perform with comfort whether they were dancing or marching. 

The MTX shoe “gives them the confidence to perform their show to the fullest.”

The colorguard, outfitted in the Ever-Jazz, echoed the same needs as many other guards wearing this footwear. They needed a shoe that was durable and form-fitting. Daniel Riley, Colorguard Caption Head, likes the shoe for the flexibility in the split sole as well as its washable nature.

It is obvious that SCV 2018 has a message we all can understand. It is a privilege to partner with a corps who models the message they convey on and off the field. Their storyline is echoed in the teaching process, in the interaction of members, and in the very nature of the production. Babel may have fallen, but SCV is doing wonders at rebuilding the society lost behind the communication barrier. We’re proud to sponsor both the members and their message.

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