May 15, 2024

Burning Man festival sets the theme for Spartans’ “Youtopia”
by Jeff Griffith, Drum Corp International

For the summer of 2024, Spartans’ goal is to change the landscape of football fields across the United States.

When the Nashua, New Hampshire, corps makes its appearances on the 2024 DCI Summer Tour, it won’t be performing on grass — at least, not in the mind’s eye.

If all is executed according to plan, in the imaginations of performers, audience members and designers, Spartans’ 2024 production will be taking place in the desert.

And not just any desert location — the 2024 Spartans are headed to Burning Man. The week-long outdoor celebration of art, music, and self-expression serves as the central inspiration for Spartans’ 2024 production, “Youtopia.”

“It’s about bringing people together and building a festival,” visual designer Gilles Ouellette said. “Based on our music and our art, it’s that simple.”

As part of the Burning Man festival, held annually in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, participants build a temporary city in the desert expanse, and take part in various artistic events and activities. The festival features unique art installations and musical experiences, before ending with the burning of a symbolic sculpture, referred to as, “The Man.”

According to program and staff coordinator Fred Ford, Spartans plan to emphasize three key principles of the Burning Man festival — self-reliance, self-expression and self-inclusion. Further, he noted, the show concept offers a subtle, underlying connection for Spartans members.

“It’s kind of what a drum corps does,” Ford said. “You come to a town, you set up and unpack at a housing site, you rehearse, you go to the show, you perform, you pack it up, and you leave, and you go to the next town. That’s kind of a microcosm of Burning Man.”

As Ouellette added, the corps’ production will follow a similar arc.

“The idea of the Burning Man festival is that you leave no trace behind,” he said. “That’s a little bit of what we’re trying to do as well; by the time we get to the end of the show, we’re hoping that we’re back to the desert in its pure form.”

In order to embody the essence of Burning Man-oriented art work, Spartans turned to artificial intelligence.

Designers utilized A.I. imaging to create inspiration for what their set pieces might look like. Designers input their own original descriptions of potential art-installation props, A.I. software generated images to match these descriptions, and the A.I. images served as a basis for prop building.

“We use it as a tool,” Ford said. “We give it the information that we want. ‘Create something for me that will achieve the following parameters.’ And then from there, whatever it creates, our team modifies it and makes it into something unique for us.”

Musically, Spartans will open with Holly Herndon’s “Frontier,” in order to set the stage for a desert atmosphere.

From there the corps will utilize Todd Terje’s “Alfonso Muskadunder,” Wynton Marsalis’ “Sweet Release: Church: Renewing Vows,” and Billie Elish’s “What Was I Made For?” within their show’s repertoire. Each of these three songs is intended to embody specific art installations being built throughout the corps’ production.

As Ouellette noted, the music will volley from style to style, all while aiming to capture the energy of Burning Man.

“People arrive to the desert, and we start to create our art installations,” he said. “We produce our own art, but we also produce our own music to go with that. So, there’ll be a lot of variety in the program, to pick up on the individuality of these artists.”

Finally, the show will close with a conclusive celebration, similarly to Burning Man. This last chapter will be set to original music by corps composers.

“At Burning Man, there’s a big festival at the end, it happens at night, and they burn everything down,” Ouellette said. “So, we are not going to burn anything, but we are going to have a festival at the end where the collective will get together and celebrate.”

Spartans 2023 Open Class World Champions
Spartans captured the DCI Open Class World Championship title in 2023.

With a World Championship title under the belts from 2023, Spartans mentioned multiple points of optimism, including, most prominent, a noticeable amount of staff continuity for 2024.

“The organization as a whole is moving in a very positive direction,” Ouellette said. “A really high percentage of the people who are involved at all levels have marched with the corps. That creates a really great environment and chemistry. There’s a very positive vibe happening because of that.”

Ford also made a point to express gratitude for the administration of Southwind; the corps based out of Mobile, Alabama, ceased operations during the 2023-24 drum corps offseason, but donated an array of equipment and resources to Spartans in the months that followed its announcement.

“We’re extremely grateful to the Southwind organization for their donations of an equipment truck, a food truck, about 100 brass instruments, and some sound equipment,” Ford said. “And then we created a legacy project, where I think we have about nine or 10 former Southwind students marching at a discounted rate.”

Spartans will debut “Youtopia” on June 29 in Shelton, Connecticut.

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