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The colour and the symmetry of the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo’s finale.

The whistle blows and two waves of citizen soldiers advance towards a black horizon that could serve as a metaphor for death or for the colonial shadows from which a young country’s nationhood would emerge. Either way, this indoor depiction of the early stages of the Battle of Vimy Ridge brings with it a sense of being swallowed up and handed over to fate.

And so with a steady pace and fixed bayonets, the soldiers in this re-enactment slice through a vaporous curtain before fading into black. Conical beams of light punch down in rapid succession, each one hitting the ground in bursts that seem to bloom into large, red poppies. The noise of exploding artillery shells fills the air, and soon the soldiers re-emerge through the smoke, as if they have survived a tremendous battle.

It is all very dramatic, and the 6,000 people crowded into the Halifax Metro Centre seem pretty impressed with the 29th edition of the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo and with this particular segment, which eventually links the 90th anniversary of Vimy to the soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

The linkage is a tiny scene that unfolds at the opposite end of the arena, featuring a dad, a mom and two children. The kids are helping Dad pack his barrack box, and the scene ends with the little boy–standing alone in a single spotlight–saluting the memory of his fallen father. “I was very glad to be a part of that little scene,” says Lieutenant-Commander Roland Leyte, who played the part of the dad. “It reminded me of when I actually did deploy to Afghanistan because my daughter, who sings in the tattoo choir, helped me pack my barrack box. It was a difficult seven months over there–being away from family.”

Hidden from the audience’s view–just as that scene was unfolding–are between 1,500 and 2,000 performers and production workers moving about in the dark cavernous spaces below the stands, warming up their voices and instruments, repairing props and costumes or making sure the various acts remain on cue. But what looks like frenzy is actually well-organized chaos, as demonstrated by the show’s team of “arena masters”, who can put 750 people on stage in less than 15 seconds–and do it several times during the three-hour show.

Other workers are looking down from above–monitoring the show from the arena’s press boxes or from steel catwalks up among the rafters and the show’s 350 lighting instruments.

Somewhere up there or back there is producer/director Ian Fraser, a tough-talking, no-nonsense retired colonel who has been known to spice up production meetings with: “You can hate me for five minutes, but get over it, the show must go on.” Dig a little below the surface of this showman and you find a proud, smart and gracious man who is quick to praise those who put in the long days behind and in front of the scenes.

A former officer in Canada’s Black Watch–the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada–and a former commander of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regt. and the Canadian Airborne Regt., Fraser has been involved in the tattoo since 1979, when he was ordered (not asked) by Vice-Admiral Andrew Collier–the commander of Maritime Command–to produce a world-class event that would open the International Gathering of the Clans. At the time Fraser had less than six months to pull it off, and the audience would include the Queen Mother.

His biggest supporter back then was then-premier John Buchanan, whom Fraser credits with launching the excellent working relationship the tattoo enjoys today with the province, and in particular its Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage.

That first, single-day show–extended to a second by popular demand–was a success, and from there it grew into an international tattoo that stretches over nine days and brings in military and civilian performers from across Canada and around the world. “It’s an enormous undertaking and we have an incredible staff–six permanent in our office here in Halifax, and then we have contract staff who come in–assistant directors, directors of music, arrangers and choreographers–all of whom are immensely talented. Frankly, it’s now to the point that all I do is guide them, and point them in the right direction when it’s required–and believe me it’s not required very often.”

Fraser believes there is not another team in the world that is as knowledgeable about how to present a show of this size in an arena. “It is classed as the largest annual indoor show in the world, and it is without question the best, and not just because of me, but because of all those people who work behind the scenes or perform. It is a team effort from the start.”

Down below the stands–far from the glare of the spotlights, the music and the smell of popcorn, and tucked into a cubbyhole amid all the organized chaos–is 85-year-old Patricia Martinson, the show’s props supervisor. She’s been with the tattoo for the last 15 years, and during the busy lead-up this year was putting in 12- and 15-hour days, using her cane or scooter to get around. “I love it. I just can’t see myself–at 85–spending time thinking about my next blue rinse.”

Planning for each year’s show begins in October or November with a major production meeting. “Five of us will meet and we’ll mould it together, and then we’ll add layers and eventually more layers of people,” says Fraser.

Every March there is a music/administration meeting that lasts three or four days–and the participants include roughly 40 people from across Canada and around the world. Within a month of that a 150-page script is distributed to production staff. “We keep developing it and developing it and developing it, and we come into the Metro Centre about three weeks before the first show, although people are rehearsing their various acts all over the place,” he adds.

One week alone is spent putting up the lights and the massive stage that can easily hold 750 performers–ranging from an array of pipes and drums to the 100-strong Tattoo Choir and 50-strong Tattoo Children’s Chorus to single performers like celebrated Canadian vocal soloists Measha Brueggergosman, Joe Donahue and Derrick Paul Miller.

Fraser says the constant focus is to accomplish the mission: “To produce and present a world-class international cultural event that will stimulate patriotism, educate youth, and recognize the country’s debt to the Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.” Add to that the goal to attract tourists to Nova Scotia by the tens of thousands, strengthen international relations and give something back to the show’s generous sponsors.

Attendance-wise, this year’s tattoo–from June 30 to July 8–drew between 55,000 and 60,000 spectators, and tickets for adults ranged from $28 to $55, with discounts for seniors and students, and cheaper prices for children. While organizers are quite pleased with attendance, they are confident they could bring in a lot more if they had more seats. All this, they say, is very good for the Maritimes and for Halifax in particular. Mayor Peter Kelly points to the economic spinoffs which take the form of solid hotel bookings and busy restaurants and shops.

Indeed, the number of tourists attending the event has risen steadily. Total audience in 2006 was 55,954. Of them, more than 42 per cent or 20,949 were from outside the area. What’s also satisfying to organizers is that 56.3 per cent of those same tourists came to Halifax specifically for the tattoo.

Tourists who visited last year spent nearly $35 million, and those who came specifically because of the event spent nearly $20 million.

So why has it remained such a huge draw for nearly 30 years? And what specifically are the Canadian and international acts people are coming to see? First, it’s worth noting that the tattoo changes every year, incorporating new themes. This year it was Vimy and Afghanistan. Next year’s emphasis is expected to be on the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I and the 250th anniversary of parliamentary democracy in Canada, which began in Nova Scotia.

The Honourable Cecil Clarke, Speaker of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, and the dignitary who helped lead the parade on the closing day of this year’s tattoo, says having the tattoo here to highlight that historic milestone for Nova Scotia is a win-win combination.

Secondly, the tattoo is not just a succession of military bands and drill teams marching in and out of the arena. The show has a huge theatrical component, which is broken up and spliced between and sometimes into the military performances.

There are comedy gymnasts, highland dancers, soloists and historical re-enactments that involve a group of volunteers known as the Tattoo Extras. There’s a very serious obstacle race that features teams from Canada’s navy, army and air force. This year’s teams represented HMCS Athabaskan, 36 Canadian Brigade Group and an air force composite team from 16 Wing Borden, 12 Wing Shearwater and 14 AES Bridgewater.

But for many spectators, the bands make the tattoo, starting with the Stadacona Band of Maritime Forces Atlantic. Based in Halifax, it performs on the floor throughout the show and acts as the tattoo’s main band or ‘pit band’. “Of all the organizations that support the tattoo, this band is the continuity–it has been in all 29 shows,” says Lt.-Cmdr. Ray Murray, the band’s commanding officer and director of music.

The other Canadian performers this year included the Air Command Band, the Band of the Ceremonial Guard, Land Force Atlantic Area Band, 12 Wing Shearwater Pipes and Drums, 14 Wing Greenwood Pipes and Drums, Atlantic Region Tri-Service Cadet Pipes and Drums, the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo/Black Watch Association Pipes and Drums, and a Tri-Service Guard that included representation from the Princess Louise Fusiliers.

There was also pipes and drum representation from the Black Watch, the Nova Scotia Highlanders, the Lorne Scots and the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, and HMCS Protecteur.

The RCMP National Ceremonial Troop was there, led by Inspector Wayne Jacquard, as was Nova Scotia’s premier Acadian dance troupe, La Baie en Joie, under director Anne Marie Comeau, and the Langley Ukulele Ensemble from British Columbia, under director Peter Luongo. “Being part of this gives us the chance to express a side other than the normal everyday policing,” says RCMP Sergeant-Major Bob Gallup. “We are from right across the country and every year we gather up 24 to 28 people–get together for a month, train for a couple of weeks and then come down here to perform.”

Gallup says he and the others in the troop come away with immense pride–“to be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the armed forces and regimental groups from around the world.”

“Our students in B.C. don’t have the same understanding of the military that you find here in Halifax and the rest of the Maritimes,” says Luongo. “We saw the front page article of the six soldiers who died in Afghanistan and we began our rehearsal with a moment of silence. I would suggest that this experience here is one everyone should see or be a part of. It makes you feel good about being Canadian. It connects you back to your history in a way that a textbook will never do.”

In terms of sheer numbers of performers, the international contributions comprise between 65 and 75 per cent of the show. This year’s featured The Bugle Corps of The Royal Band of the Belgian Guides, Luftwaffenmusikkorps 2 and The Flying Grandpas from Germany, Trompetterkorps der Koninklijke Marechausse from the Netherlands, His Majesty The King’s Guards’ Band and Drill Team from Norway and Switzerland’s D’Holmikers, a comedy gymnastics team that used parallel bars to tell the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The United Kingdom contributed the Highland Band of The Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Pipes and Drums of the 7th Bn. Royal Regiment of Scotland, Pipes and Drums of the Edinburgh Universities’ Officer Training Corps and the Ciosmul Dancers. “This show is certainly one of a kind,” says Eve Bellens of the Belgian Guides. “We don’t have anything like it in Europe and we are very honoured to participate.”

“The atmosphere here in Halifax is just excellent,” says Capt. Rune Wiik, company commander of His Majesty The King’s Guards’ Band and Drill Team from Norway. The company, which has 10 officers, performed with 108 guard members–10 short of its full complement, which includes 13 women.

Organizers are very pleased with the support the tattoo gets from the Canadian military, but they say it is somewhat of a sad commentary on the state of the bands in the CF that the Air Command Band, for instance, has about 30 players on the floor during the show. “A Canadian Forces band consists of about 35 people today,” says retired colonel John Boileau, a member of the tattoo’s board of directors. “It is interesting when we compare that number–30–with the 100-strong bands that come from Europe.”

Production Co-ordinator Jim Forde shares that concern, but is pleased the tattoo is showing the colour and ceremonial aspects of Canada’s military culture and heritage. “I hope people take away from this show a sense of pride in being Canadian–and pride in the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. I don’t think there is enough of that today…. This place–this show is helping to change that. It brings in the ceremonial aspects, and that is something we have lost in the last 40 years. When I joined the forces 43 years ago we had 18 bands–the army alone had 12, the navy had five and the air force three or four. Now we are down to six regular force bands–and small ones at that…. Some people will say it’s costing–that it costs a lot to have bands. Well, it costs a lot to have national pride, and I think it is a price we need to pay.”

Among those in attendance this year was an old friend of Ian Fraser’s–Brigadier Mel Jameson. Both men served in Cyprus with the UN–Fraser with the Black Watch and Jameson with the Royal Scots Greys. What makes the relationship a little more unique is that Jameson just retired as chief executive officer and producer of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, considered the granddaddy of all tattoos.

Yet, Jameson says he has over the years benefited greatly from Fraser’s way of doing things. “I’ve learned a lot from him…. He has done a remarkable job. This tattoo has something for the entire family and yet still hits the mark for servicemen and women who are serving and those who have retired, particularly with the difficulties we have in the operational areas of today, such as Afghanistan.”

And that is all-important to Fraser and his team, who see the value in using the tattoo to link the small and large pieces of military service and ceremony to national pride. “In some ways Afghanistan is like Vimy,” says Fraser. “It is not going to be like Vimy in terms of huge monuments and things, but it is shaping a nation whether we like it or not, and I think that is going to be judged in a very interesting way in time.”

Tattoo Defined

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines “tattoo” as 1. an evening drum or bugle signal recalling soldiers to their quarters; 2. an elaboration of this with music and marching, presented as entertainment; 3. a rhythmic tapping or drumming.

In Dutch towns and villages during the 17th century, drummers marched through the streets, summoning the soldiers who were spending a little down time in local taverns or inns. A drumbeat–coming from the street–would signal the owners and keepers of the establishments to “turn off the taps” or “doe den tap toe.”

In time, the message was shortened to “tap toe”, and finally “tattoo.”

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