Swinging for the Stars

Swinging for the Stars

Inside a gymnasium in Shelton, a dozen or so recruits under the age of 10 are training to become Jedi peacekeepers in the galactic fight against the Dark Side. A Jedi master named Kato Kislo, wearing the neutral-toned, belted tunic made familiar by nine Star Wars movies, explains what’s at stake. “Master Yoda has sent us to find Jedi to bring peace and justice to the galaxy… This is your first step in your journey to become a full-fledged Jedi master.” The kids, standing in their orange “training circles,” are captivated by the winking, high-minded seriousness of their three instructors but also visibly wondering when they’ll be issued their training sabers.

“What is the greatest tool a Jedi has?” asks Master Kislo, and two or three kids pipe up: “Lightsabers!” The right answer is The Force, and gathering it into an invisible ball capable of pushing a Jedi instructor several steps backward is about to be their first, saber-free lesson. But the kids aren’t exactly wrong, either. The lightsaber, an awesome Day-Glo beam that switches on like a flashlight and slashes like a sword, is the most iconic invention of the Star Wars universe—and the reason Star Wars fans formed “Temples” like the one conducting this training session in Shelton.

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“I have a lot of lightsabers,” says a grinning Kate Slomkowski, who plays Kislo but is now speaking to me as the director of Kessel Temple, one of over 30 Lucasfilm-sanctioned Temples that make up the Saber Guild. “We can talk about sabers for a long time.” The possibility of deploying facsimile lightsabers in choreographed duels is what gave rise to the Saber Guild in 2006, its first Temple located in Orange County, California. Through practice, and without any necessary training in fencing or martial arts, the duels can rise to the level of performance art, imparting in performers the thrill of being in a Star Wars movie and in spectators the thrill of watching one. There are Temples now training and performing on four continents.

For the Kessel Temple—a name so chosen because Kessel, in Star Wars lore, is a spice planet and Connecticut is a Nutmeg State—members practice weekly at Performance Combat, an MMA and jiu-jitsu gym in Wallingford. A week before their recruitment mission in Shelton, Slomkowski led a small group of saberists through an orderly sequence of swipes and spins, each instruction describing a step in what would eventually become one side of a duel. “Sabers off. Ignite. Step out. Big cut. Forward roll. Retreat. Step. Back. Draw a C while crossing your left foot behind your right. Untwist. Continue into a big cut. Forward wrist spin.” With repetition, crossing from one end of the padded floor to the other, the steps began to suggest balletic saber action. The “ignite” part referred to the etiquette of activating your saber, waiting until you have achieved the “baseball stance” recognizable as any Jedi’s pose on a Star Wars collector’s card. This is also a practical matter of making sure the saber doesn’t ignite into your person. Saber Guild sabers are solid sticks, not real laser swords, of course, but they aren’t mere toys, either.

“The sabers we use are stunt sabers,” Slomkowski explains, “so they’re not the ones that you get at Wal-Mart… Our sabers are meant to take a hit and not break. It uses a heavier blade and a removable blade, so if one does break, you can just pop it out and put another one in… There’s also the lightsaber sport that’s now, so people can just do fencing with lightsabers. But that’s definitely not what we do. We are stage combat. It’s very carefully choreographed in practice.”

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Saber choreography is very much in the spirit of a Star Wars movie, where actors work with sword specialists and stunt coordinators to construct each thrust and parry. Having memorized these moves like lines of dialogue, they would look convincingly like skilled Jedi intent on vanquishing the Sith. Saber Guild members put the same thought and energy into developing and then rehearsing such choreographies until they can perform them for audiences at sporting events, conventions and parades.

“We’ve done Ocean City Comic Con down in Maryland for the past two years,” Slomkowski says, “and they do a big show down there, so in preparation for that, we worked with a stunt choreographer… And we’ve taken those choreographies that we worked months putting together, and we’ve broken it down to kind of a simpler version that we’re now teaching everyone in our Temple.” The house choreography—or “choreo”—is appropriately called “The Kessel Run,” which is also the name of a feat of space navigation Han Solo pulled off in the Millennium Falcon. The newer choreo in progress is called “Flight of the Falcon,” which, Slomkowski explains, pits “a Sith versus a Jedi, so it is a little bit more aggressive. More acting.” It has pauses built-in so the duelists can taunt each other, taking a cue from every climactic lightsaber duel in the Star Wars saga. If you can work a one-handed cartwheel into the choreo, as Slomkowski has done, all the better.

Slomkowski already had a martial arts background when she joined Kessel Temple in 2018. As a choreographer, she has imported ideas from studying vintage kung fu movies on YouTube. “I feel like our Temple… has its own distinctive style versus maybe another Saber Guild Temple,” Slomkowski says, “just because… is what I’m comfortable with and that’s the style that I’m teaching.” The Temple reawakened her childhood love for Star Wars, leading to a search for choreo inspiration from deep inside the cinematic universe. A Kessel Temple favorite is a duel from an episode of The Clone Wars, for which the actor and martial artist Ray Park provided motion-capture for a Sith he had already played in one of the movies. (His Darth Maul had been defeated by Obi Wan Kenobi in The Phantom Menace, but in Star Wars, falling down a ventilation shaft is a practical guarantee that you’ll be back, even if you’ve been halved.)

Kessel Temple performances can have the plottedness of Star Wars episodes, too. The group recently performed a half-time show at a Connecticut Sun basketball game, and it was a production. “So the story was that the Sith were after the Holocron”—a kind of flash drive containing secret Jedi knowledge—”and the Jedi were trying to keep the Holocron away from them,” Slomkowski explains. “And in that endeavor, Rey gets captured… by Kylo Ren.” Kessel temple members actually pre-shot this introduction with cameras and a script for broadcast on the arena’s jumbotron. “The big melee… we had on court. That was Kylo Ren versus Rey, then we had two Sith fighting three Jedi. We actually involved the mascot too. He was the one holding the Holocron and keeping it safe from the Sith.” The mascot, a shaggy orange bear-like creature named Blaze, would have been indistinguishable from the comic relief character in any Star Wars story.

Part of the appeal of these shows is the presence of an actual Star Wars character—a “face” in the parlance of costumed fan groups. Having a Kylo Ren or a Rey in the ranks is also a mark of the guild’s commitment. The costume, assembled at the member’s expense, must adhere to a strict guide that runs to 50 pages with color Pantones and a daunting list of forbidden fabrics. It then goes through an approval process by the Saber Guild’s “global costume consulars.” Because the details of Luke Skywalker’s Return of the Jedi tunic are so well-established, there’s that much less room for error in getting your costume approved. Temple members tend to develop their characters as painstakingly as they develop their choreos.

“My generic Jedi—that was the very first one I got approved,” Slomkowski says. “Then I got my Sith character approved. And her name is Kaimos. Sith are so much fun to play. She’s kind of like a real mouthy Sith who likes to make fun of the Jedi when she encounters them… And then I have an alien… She’s a teal Twi’lek Jedi. I got to paint my face blue. The head piece can be a little heavy. You have to wear the head tails”—a prosthetic cap representing the prehensile tentacles on a Twi’lek’s head—“so I don’t perform as much in that one because doing lightsaber choreo in that can be a little tricky…”

Back in the Shelton gymnasium, she and her fellow Jedi are simultaneously characters and choreographers. For the younglings and their parents, they are now demonstrating defense moves. “Tuck! Come up! Leg! Leg!” The kids gamely follow along. The tuck has the look of a cool action pose, as does the hanging parry, which brings the saber to a horizontal line over the head. When a Sith sorceress turns up to interrogate them about their newly acquired skills, the younglings line up to demonstrate. “One-two-three jump!” their Jedi minders say when the Sith’s saber passes close to their feet. “Up over the head!” prompts a hanging parry in time to stop the Sith’s red saber. The children’s eyes are wide at the end of their turn. Their corner of Connecticut has begun to look like a galaxy far, far away.

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Written by David Zukowski. Images 1-3 and 5 photographed by David Zukowski. Images 1 and 3 feature, from right, Kessel Temple members Kate Slomkowski, Riza Brown, Sebastian Ruffino and Angeline Kwasny practicing their moves. Image 2 features Jedi master Nas Rexi (Eric Colson) posing near Sith lord Ori’on Jen Itsu (Kathie Vrlik). Image 4 features Kessel Temple at a Connecticut Sun game. Image 5 features Slomkowski, Vrlik and young Padawans learning how to defend against the sinister Sith.

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