Winter Guard International holds 2003 championships

by Daniel Buteau, DCW staff

On April 11 and 12, two days of original presentations performed in a constructive competitive climate that fostered creativity and uniqueness were staged in Dayton, OH. The city was home to the championships of an organization that is able to expand its creative boundaries while, at the same time, remaining true to its core purposes. Winter Guard International, after nine years of seeing no winter guard or percussion show, felt like a breath of fresh air compared to the high tensions experienced by the drum corps activity in the past few years.

One of the most striking aspects of world class winter guard competition is the constant change in the line-ups of its top competitors. Of the 21 units in competition in the 2003 Independent World Class Prelims, only five had competed in 1994, the last time I had attended WGI. One of these, Sonnor, was back after a few years off and could still perform at a level not that far away from their last year in the top winter guard category.

Division I drum and bugle corps must devote consistent attention to financial and organizational considerations just to remain active. Coming back after taking a few years is also a painful process attempted only by the heroic few. World class winter guards seem to depend mostly on assembling a core group of talented individuals willing to devote the time necessary to achieve the high standards required at that competitive level. It is, of course, much easier to raise the funds necessary to move around a group of 20-30 color guard performers than it is to find enough resources to tour with a full-size drum and bugle corps.

Established WGI groups such as Alliance of Miami, Blessed Sacrament, Pride of Cincinnati and San Jose Raiders must continuously keep an eye not only on guards in their own categories, but also on groups at other level that may be assembling the talent necessary for world class challenge. The top seven independent open winter guard at this year’s event could conceivably move to world class next year if they take their current performance level to the next stage. This provides a degree of variety and excitement of the kind drum corps fans can only dream about most years.

Also rather surprising at the 2003 WGI Championships was the refreshing simplicity of many of the top groups’ presentations. When I last attended in 1994, the winter guard activity seemed intent on reaching newer levels of esoteric show concepts and integration of unnecessarily elaborate backgrounds and props. At the time, the scholastic world class units were far more entertaining than their independent counterparts. This year’s contest showcased a flip side opposite situation.

The 2003 independent world class winter guards appear to be rediscovering their roots. Many of the elaborate backdrops and costuming have been replaced by subdued tarps and uniforms in basic colors that emphasize the equipment work. Of the top units, third place Fantasia had the most elaborate costume for its “punk” presentation. World champion San Jose Raiders and runner-up Pride of Cincinnati were far more subdued in using more basic costumes.

The musical choices of many winter guard designers also seemed rather unconventional compared to the esoteric performances of the mid-1990s. WGI Championships would not rank in the top places where I would expect to again hear a former drum corps standard like Blue Rondo à la Turk. This was the musical choice offered by Miamisburg High School, who placed fourth in scholastic world class. The Patriots, who placed fourth in the independent world class, chose an interesting arrangement of Caravan.

Scholastic world class champion James Logan High School of Union City, CA, who achieved the highest score of the whole championships, based their show on excerpts from Carmen. This was quite a contrast to the dissonant sounds that were the hallmarks of Bishop Kearny, the top scholastic guard of the early 1990s.

The medleys chosen by Blessed Sacrament and Onyx were definitely unexpected. Blessed Sacrament, in a presentation reminiscent of their top Rock With Sac shows of the mid-1980s, used selections from Earth, Wind and Fire. Onyx appeared to have staged an attempt to fit the highest number of Queen songs in the allotted time. World class WGI units used to be obsessed with the unity of their musical, visual and conceptual components. These two units’ choices were strong reminders that equipment work should be the core purpose of winter guard competition.

Both also became instant crowd favorites. Onyx connected with the crowd with a high-energy presentation, while Blessed Sacrament’s more laid-back performance kept surprising the crowd with unexpected equipment tosses.

The most adventurous audio background was used by Northern Lights, who had each performer wearing a microphone for a presentation based on excerpts from war letters read alternately by each of the performers. Such equipment did seem appropriate for a competitive activity held in an indoor venue. Winter guards can also be more adventurous in their audio choices, as this component is the backdrop that takes second stage to the equipment work that forms their core activity.

In the case of Northern Lights, the microphones added an element of difficulty that definitely enhanced the performance. How similar use would play out on the drum corps field remains an open question, as the audio musical experience is the core of what drum and bugle corps do. The question of how voices could be convincingly heard while surrounded by full brass and percussion contingents is also one that raises many doubts.

The 2003 WGI Championships was yet another example of how world class winter guards offer much more variety than division I drum corps. The past few DCI Finals heavily focused on classical selections and jazz. Fans attending WGI were treated to a high variety of musical idioms, with the dramatic love music used by San Jose Raiders, heavy rock of Fantasia, light classical choices of Oracle and Northeast Independent, loud musical theater selection of Alliance of Miami and the lyrical songs used by Mayflower and Sonnor. The open class Onyx entry even performed in complete silence…

For the rest of this article, check out the June 6, 2003, issue of Drum Corps World!