Donald Munro

Munro: For Clovis North color guard, a risky approach pays off with title

Jaycee Wilson and Shavon Garcia took a big risk last weekend.

As director and assistant director, respectively, of the Clovis North High School Color Guard, Wilson and Garcia went against the artistic grain in the finals of the 2015 Western Color Guard Championships at Save Mart Center. Instead of trying to wow the judges with lots of high-voltage moves — which in color-guard competition parlance means lots of rifle and sabre tossing and flashy visuals — they chose the opposite approach.

The 12 Clovis North guard members wore simple black costumes. Their flags and giant performance mat were white instead of the vivid colors of most groups. Instead of up-tempo moves, the performance was much more subtle and focused on the movements of individual bodies.

The biggest risk, perhaps, was the choice of music: a piece titled “Scene No. 1” by the contemporary classical group Balmorhea. With its minimalist motif gaining intensity with the pace of a slow boil, the music felt cerebral and bare, making the individual guard members feel even more exposed than they were as they performed modern and classical dance movements. They did their share of tossing rifles and sabres as well, but for this routine, dance was the star.

The risk paid off.

Clovis North beat out 27 other schools in the Scholastic A category to win first place at finals.

I should probably stop here for a moment to offer some background to people who don’t know much about the competitive color guard world. (Isn’t it interesting how there are so many “worlds” to which one can belong, each with its own terminology, body of knowledge and insider gossip? I’m lucky that my job intersects with so many of those worlds I’d probably never know much about otherwise.)

Color guards are usually part of marching bands, adding a visual jolt with flags, props and routines on the football field.

After marching-band season is over in the fall, however, some color guards go on to compete all by themselves with recorded music.

The performance last weekend by the Clovis North ensemble was the biggest winter-guard win in the young school’s history.

The long-established Clovis West High School color guard did well in the finals, too, scoring third in the tougher Scholastic Open division. The competition also was open to college and adult groups.

The Santa Clara Vanguard walked away with the top trophy in the most competitive division.

The regional championship at Save Mart was the last stop before the world championships next month in Dayton, Ohio.

Here’s what impressed me about almost every competitor in the finals: the way so much time and effort went into the artistry of the routines, and the overall difficulty of what the guard members do.

I don’t know about you, but tossing a sabre 20 feet in the air and then having to catch it as it spins back to earth — in front of a thousand spectators with eyes glued to every movement — would be pretty scary. If you drop it, everyone’s going to know.

On a deeper level, I’ve long been fascinated by the way that humans move when they’re in groups. Sometimes it’s the result of careful choreography and massive amounts of practice, such as with marching band and color guard routines.

At other times it’s unplanned but just as impressive. One of the things that blew me away as a college student in New York was standing on the 96th Street subway station platform when both the No. 1 local and No. 3 express stopped at the same time. The doors on both trains would open at the same time, and within 30 seconds hundreds of people would essentially switch places — folks on the local jumping on the express and vice versa.

No one bumped into each other. The doors on both trains would close at the same time and whoosh out of the station. After the folks getting off at 96th Street scurried away, the platform would be empty.

It was if someone had spent hours choreographing that move. But no one did. It just happened.

Perhaps that’s what I get out of watching bands and color guards compete. It’s like a big, intricate dance — a controlled version of subway choreography. I think people moving together can be beautiful.

The Clovis North win at Save Mart is even more impressive when you learn that none of the students had prior dance experience before color guard. That Wilson and Garcia were able to draw such intense and artistic movement from them with just 13 hours of practice a week since January is an achievement, indeed. And a sign of the incredible effort all 12 students made. (By 2017, hopes are that the ensemble will move up to the Scholastic Open category and make a trip to Dayton.)

Congratulations to them, and to all the hard-working high school students who put their all into whatever extracurricular activity they choose — marching band, athletics, chess club, whatever. Your striving for perfection is inspiring for us all.