NORFOLK — It’s a good thing the Virginia International Tattoo, one of the showstoppers of the Virginia Arts Festival, is returning to Scope.
It was canceled in 2020. Then condensed and held last year in the open air of a football stadium. The 25th anniversary tattoo show returns to its original stomping ground this week with enough international bands, bagpipes, bugles, Hooahs! Hooyahs! Oorahs!, drumming, dancing, anthems, tartan and bearskin hats to fill an arena.
Organizers have aptly called it “A Celebration of Resilience.”
The tattoo runs April 28 through May 1 and brings with it several of the traditions that fans have missed the past two years: the Hullabaloos, free parties before each show in the Scope Plaza; the NATO Parade of Nations and American Pipe Band Championship on April 30.
Here are 25 must-sees, interesting tidbits and insider tips for the VIT:
1. Curious about what a tattoo is? The name goes back 400-odd years to Belgium and the Netherlands. When the soldiers went out partying, a military drummer marched through town, playing “doe den tap toe,” (which means “Turn off the taps” in Dutch) as a nudge to barkeeps. The name was eventually shortened and became linked to massive displays of military pageantry, which are now held around the world.
2. The Virginia International Tattoo has never been late. Not even a second. The show requires more than 1 million musical notes, 100 channels of audio, 500 light fixtures, and 50,000 discrete sound, lighting and staging cues. The arena opens an hour before each event and a large, digital clock starts the countdown. When the clock hits 0.00, the show begins.
3. The show will have seven drum majors, including Master Sergeant Stacie Crowther, the first female senior drum major of any tattoo in the world.
4. Organizers know the show will pull in returnees but they like to spice up the extravaganza each year with new elements. Regulars can rely on iconic moments, such as the Marine Corps reenactment of the Iwo Jima flag raising. This year, there will be … oh, you know we’re not giving it away, right?
5. All right, all right. We’ll offer this fresh crumb: The traditional lone piper will be Pipe Major Ross McCrindle, a senior bagpiper at Britain’s Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming. He has composed a unique lament for this year’s program.
6. Tidewater Pipes and Drums will be wearing the official Tattoo “Hixon” Tartan. The fabric is named for a former arts festival board chair, James Hixon. It was designed in Scotland and loomed by R.G. Hardie & Co. of Glasgow. The tartan includes the “Festival Blue” of the VAF, and the red, white and blue threads symbolize patriotism. Gray stripes represent the battleship hue of Navy ships and jets, and other blues stand for the state flag and Norfolk seal. The fabric is available for purchase.
7. The national anthem performance is a unique arrangement specific to the tattoo. It includes Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine soloists and instrumentalists.
8. The Marine Corps FAST Company and its obstacle course scenario — a fan favorite — returns after a three-year hiatus. (That’s “FAST” for Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team.)
9. The show has 19 scenes that are seamlessly choreographed and transitioned throughout the performance.
10. Another addition: The debut of the Virginia International Tattoo Highland Dance Company, which was created for the event and is led by Aileen Robertson, a world-champion highland dance instructor in Scotland. The group includes 32 dancers from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Brazil. Robertson first served as a choreographer for the tattoo in 2006.
11. Four groups that played at the first tattoo in 1997 are performing: the Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the U.S. Coast Guard Silent Drill team, the United States Fleet Forces Band (which was called the Atlantic Fleet Band back then) and the Army’s TRADOC Band (known in 1997 as the Continental Army Band).
12. Each of the U.S. military bands will perform a Sousa piece, as in John Philip Sousa, the granddaddy of military marches. Sousa (1854 to 1932) conducted “The President’s Own” Marine band under Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland and Harrison. He retired in 1892 to create a civilian concert band. When the first World War erupted, he joined the reserves to train musicians and donated all but $1 of his pay to military relief funds.
13. The Pipes and Drums of the Highlanders, 4th Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland will be a highlight of the show. It is one of the world’s most historic pipe bands and Pipe Major Color Sergeant Peter Grant served as the lone piper at the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 2021.
14. In commemoration of the Kingdom of Jordan’s 100th anniversary last year, the Jordanian Armed Forces Band and the Jordanian Armed Forces Pipes and Drums will perform. The band had only 10 members when it and the kingdom were established in 1921. Now, more than 50 performers are coming to Norfolk, playing in two distinct groups.
15. The show always features the playing of “Taps,” and the honor is rotated among the service branches. It’s the Air Force’s turn this year.
16. Each show requires 75 people working behind the scenes.
17. Another fan fave is the singing of “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish song that signals the end of a gathering of loved ones. Supposedly, it ranks second only to another Scottish sendoff, “Auld Lang Syne.” This year it will be performed by Dougie Anderson, a Celtic singer and Royal Regiment of Scotland veteran, and Seán Heely, a winner of the U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Championships. A ceremonial toast will be given with the Scottish cup of friendship, a quaich.
18. The “Special Audience Night” is April 26, a dress rehearsal open, at no charge, to people with special needs and their families. The tradition began in 2011 after tattoo producer and director Scott Jackson and his wife started taking their autistic daughter to the dress rehearsals and wanted to share the experience with others. Contact the festival offices for vouchers at email@example.com or 757-282-2800.
19. Side note: Jackson has played a role in each tattoo, first as a performer in 1997.
20. Military service songs are sung at every show, and audience members of the respective branches are invited to stand and join in. Military protocol calls for playing them in a specific order, usually ending with the Army. Since Hampton Roads is considered a Navy town, “Anchors Aweigh” is sung last.
21. Three sets of siblings will be in the show: Two members of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, two highland dancers and Pipe Major Peter Grant (see Reason 13) and his brother, Drum Major Sergeant Ruaridh Grant. They are the first sibs to hold the posts of pipe major and drum major in the history of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
22. The show used to be 2 1/2 hours with a 30-minute intermission. Organizers dropped the break and made the program a more intense two-hour experience. They said, in a statement, “Think of your favorite movie. Would you really want to stop in the middle?”
23. The cycling band of the Netherlands is back. It hearkens back to when the Dutch cavalry rode bikes during wartime. Tattoo regulars know that its scene is more about comedy and unique, professional musicianship.
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24. Tattoos are intended to be over-the-top events meant for crowds of thousands. Organizers started using video screens several years ago so that everyone in the audience could see the performers close up and could see the show well. The screens also add to the ambience of the show being a spectacle.
25. Speaking of big, the mic-dropping finale begins with “Parade of the Charioteers,” from the epic film, “Ben Hur.” All of the performers march in, the drum major delivers a ceremonial “Roll Call,” and a senior official accepts a salute once all the cast is accounted for. It goes back to the traditions of the first tattoos.
When: 7:30 p.m. April 28 through 30; 2:30 p.m. May1.
Where: Scope, 201 E. Brambleton Ave., Norfolk
Tickets: Start at $10.
Details: vafest.org or 757-282-2800