Design/Movement- 21st Century
After the turn of the century, visual designs began including so much simultaneous GE that it was often difficult for audience members to decide what to focus on. In addition to a flood of new equipment, sets, and props, the complex designs featured layers of content with dynamic patterns and forms. Some programs were so content-dense that they required several viewings for the average fan to fully appreciate what was being presented. The Cavaliers (4 DCI Championships), Cadets (3), and Blue Devils (3) dominated the top spot in DCI during the first decade of the century, with the visual caption right at the forefront. The Color Guard, recognized (finally!) with a 2000 rule change establishing its own caption, was a major factor in the success of those corps, signaling that the guard was now approaching equality with brass and percussion.
Two Championship shows, Cadets’ 2005 “The Zone” and Phantom Regiment’s 2008 “Spartacus” took the theatrical elements of storytelling to a new level, fully engaging the audience. In fact, the DCI website describes Phantom’s 2008 Finals performance as “marked with infectious crowd energy with calls of ‘I am Spartacus’ coming from the stands during their competitive performance and again later during the awards ceremony.”
Phantom pushed their concept one step further, dragging the character (a drum major), that had been “speared” at the end of their show, onto the field for the retreat. They dropped that victim on the ground and covered him with a red death shroud, right in the center of the drum major lineup. (You can view it at the beginning of this YouTube video:)
Phantom Regiment’s “Spartacus,” 2008 – Presenting their drum major for retreat
This “milk the theme” approach would soon gain more favor. Both the Cadet’s and Phantom Regiment’s programs, with characters playing such an integral part of the central theme, coincided with more use of “multi-cam video” of performances. This became consequential because it allowed the audience to get a closer look at the characters, making the storyline and show concept much more compelling.
When ESPN televised the 2005 DCI Finals, in “multicam” (the year of “The Zone”), a large national audience got to see the activity and “zoom in” on individuals on the field. Those “close up” views, with themed characters, solo dancers, and other subtle effects had previously been difficult to observe. Corps saw positive results on the scoresheets from the advancement of storytelling, which encouraged further propagation of the “featured individual.” Soon, many corps would jump on board with both solo dancers and featured characters.
The Cadets, 2005 – “The Zone”
Although maneuvers were more arduous than ever, the overall trend was less “marching” and more “movement.” This translated into frequent stationary forms, where arm, foot, and hand movement, rather than actually marching, became customary somewhere in every corps’ program. Most people attributed this development to borrowed ideas from marching bands and WGI and many drum corps purists were displeased. They decried that corps were “standing around, squishing bugs, gyrating, and not marching.” Unfortunately for them, GE scores were mostly favorable towards this development, so it grew. The visual aspects of the activity were clearly moving in the direction of more “artistic” expression.
Upside down percussionists in The Cavaliers’ 2011 “XtraordinarY”
That brings us to the most recent chapter of the visual journey, the most recent decade. The designs are brilliant and include intrepid equipment work and splendid and intricate forms and movement. The percussion section is now completely integrated into the visual program, often at very wide intervals, a far cry from the rigid “up and down the 50 yard line” of years ago. In fact, there are times when percussion sections are a focal point of the visuals. The Cavaliers had “upside down percussionists” in their 2011 “XtraordinarY” program and their sensational mallet feature during “Danse Macabre” in 2014’s “Immortal” was more visual than musical. Including the percussion battery into visual designs is now essential.
The Cavaliers, 2014 – “Danse Macabre”
The color guards of today routinely perform numerous daring tosses and clever exchanges, often simultaneously and with tremendous degree of difficulty. It is impossible to break into the top six these days without an excellent guard and the competition is extremely fierce. Spectacular forms and thrilling maneuvers are now the benchmark. Some of what is being performed now would have been considered nearly impossible not very long ago. We regularly see rotating circles, squares, and triangles, blind sets marching backwards, guard members catching equipment while being carried by another, and company fronts and other magnificent forms that appear seemingly out of nowhere. In the area of dance, it has gone well beyond solo performers. The guard is now expected to have dance features and it is not unusual for the full corps to be included. Adding to the spectacle has been an onslaught of massive physical sets and an abundance of props and equipment.
Carolina Crown’s 3D pyramid in 2013
Performance levels are extraordinarily high, even with the outrageously demanding content. Groundbreaking Championship programs like Crown’s “E=mc2” (2013), Blue Devils’ “Felliniesque” (2014), Bluecoats’ “Down Side Up” (2016), and Vanguard’s “Babylon” (2018) have all shattered previous visual boundaries in one way or another. The Blue Devils pushed artistry into extreme focus in 2018 with “Dreams and Nighthawks.” That program was basically a twelve minute and thirty second puzzle that culminated in the recreation of Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 oil painting “Nighthawks.” The final scene was incredibly realistic with sophisticated lighting and staging that captured every last detail. Replicating an actual piece of art so perfectly on a football field is just the latest ingenious twist we have seen. As perennial innovators in the visual space, it is no surprise that the Blue Devils, as well as others, continue to explore new angles and effects. Design teams today spend an exorbitant amount of time planning the intricacies of their visual programs to ensure optimal coordination and to take full advantage of the vast talents of their units. When the activity returns to “normal” (hopefully in 2022) it is expected that the pace of creativity and innovation will endure.
2018 Blue Devils’ recreation of “Nighthawks”
The visual aspects of the drum corps activity have evolved steadily and significantly over the past five decades. When we revisit the path of this journey, the imaginative vision, skills, and determination of many noteworthy contributors shines through. The following list includes people often referenced as having been most influential in shaping the visual activity since the formation of DCI (all are members of the DCI Hall of Fame): Pete Emmons, Ike Ianessa, Ralph Pace, Bobby Hoffman, George Zingali, John Brazale, Marc Sylvester, Michael Gaines, TJ Doucette, Peggy Twiggs, Denise Bonfiglio, Myron Rosander, Michael Moxley, Jay Murphy, Michael Cesario, Steve Brubaker, Jeff Sacktig, and Shirley Dorritee.
In this 4 part series we have examined key aspects in the evolution of the drum corps activity, highlighting the many innovations and changes that have transpired over the past five decades. Part 1 covered Brass Instrumentation, Part 2 reviewed the rise of Electronics, Part 3 traced the path of Repertoire, and Part 4 examined several facets of what has to be considered a Visual metamorphosis. What is presented on the field today is quite different from the activity’s origins with instrumentation, repertoires, and visuals having shifted prodigiously away from the militaristic roots and toward artistry and entertainment. There are valid concerns that the activity might be risking its identity by displacing some of its long held traditions. Throughout history, innovation and change in many aspects of life have frequently been met with resistance from those satisfied with the “status quo.” Even when those changes were demonstrable improvements, such as inventions that improved lives, there was derision and detractors. In drum corps, while many of the changes have been positive, there are others that do present a danger if taken to an extreme. For example, any diversion from live performance such as using recordings or artificial replacements for human accomplishment, threaten a key tenet of the activity. Excesses in props, sets, electronics, vocals, or instrumentation legalization all have the potential to “go too far” and could be detrimental to the activity. Those who have influence over the trajectory of the activity would be well advised to balance “new and improved” with preserving some foundational characteristics of the activity.
The good news is that, even with all this transformation, there are essential elements that have remained constant. Precision, pageantry, and passion still exist. Much of the content remains varied and engaging and there are still many “goosebump” moments being created. It remains an activity where young people are exposed to a form of teamwork rarely found elsewhere. They learn the value of dedicating themselves to reach goals while experiencing “esprit de corps” and an understanding that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Lifelong relationships continue to be forged and the fruits of dedication and hard work endure. And, after all this time, notwithstanding all of the many innovations and extraordinary changes, a company front still lifts people from their seats, and the constant strive for excellence continues.
The Madison Scouts “Between the LInes” – 2021
* Featured Image
Top Row: 2005 Cadets “The Zone” – “The Cadets at 2005 DCI World Championships” flickr photo by Scutter https://flickr.com/photos/scutter/36973515 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
2008 Phantom Regiment “Spartacus” – “Phantom Regiment at DCI 2008” flickr photo by Scutter https://flickr.com/photos/scutter/2781028069 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
2011 Cavaliers “2011-08-13 at 21-34-12” flickr photo by Scutter https://flickr.com/photos/scutter/6052011566 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
Bottom Row: 2013 Carolina Crown “E=MC2” – “2013 DCI World Championships” flickr photo by Scutter https://flickr.com/photos/scutter/9497068069 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
2014 Blue Devils “Felliniesque” – “Blue Devils at the 2014 DCI World Championships” flickr photo by Scutter https://flickr.com/photos/scutter/14744973808 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
2016 Bluecoats “Down Side Up” – “Flags and Ramps and Color” flickr photo by acaben https://flickr.com/photos/acaben/28087907294 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license