It’s that time of year when our Trini friends are gearing up for their annual national catharsis — carnival. Each year we follow their goings on remotely, deluged with the latest road marches, Soca and Chutney Monarch competitions, exciting costumes and panyard play from Trinidad and Tobago.
This year a poignant image started to appear on Facebook of a long, spidery daddy longlegs in white, the most delicately grotesque ballerino you’ve ever seen, dancing unlike any traditional moko jumbie (stiltwalker) to the haunting strains of The Dying Swan.
Titled “Ras Nijinksky as Anna Pavlova in ‘The Dying Swan'” the performance heralded the return of Mas man Peter Minshall after a few years of self-imposed exile from Trinidad carnival. Jhawhan Thomas’s rendition of the swan was powerful and eloquent i thought especially with all the inversions and subversions trailing behind it. Europe, Africa, male, female, traditional mas vs beads and bikinis — so many collisions were choreographed into this creation it was thrilling.
Imagine how i felt then to read Monique Roffey’s rather deflating Facebook update, above a post of the original Dying Swan:
ok Trinis, why is a dying swan at all relevant to Caribbean society? Why all the fuss?
Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) in her signature ballet, The Dying Swan, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1905.
What? was she nuts? Couldn’t she SEE how brilliant Minshall’s intervention was? It’s Creolité personified! Roffey’s question led to one of those spirited Facebook discussions one participates in from time to time that capture the heat and light of the moment. Apparently it wasn’t the only one. The St Lucian poet Vladimir Lucien expressed a view remarkably similar to Roffey’s that generated a whole other thread on his timeline.
idk what to make of da swan nuh, unless daz Minshall Ole Mas on d economy.
I’m always loathe to let such ephemeral conversations disappear into Cyberia. I have no access to Lucien’s but I reproduce a lightly edited version of the discussion on Roffey’s page here with her permission. Interspersed throughout this post are videos of Minshall’s Dying Swan, one by Makeda Thomas of Jhawhan in rehearsal along with a beautiful set of photographs by Maria Nunes.
ok Trinis, why is a dying swan at all relevant to Caribbean society? Why all the fuss?
Monique Roffey didnt see it. Whose page?
Nicola Cross It’s absolutely stunning. The movement the fact it’s even in the “carnival” bacchanal.
Edward Bowen several layers to “the fuss” – firstly the unexpected return of Minsh, secondly, with the usual “difference” of content and presentation, often quite startling, thirdly the obvious androgyny, and fourthly, that collection and more of content = drama, abstracted, left field, story telling, theatre – our society allows him that stage, his mas, perhaps we need the stories, more stories. Thing is though, stories going on all the time, but our media not geared to diversification of their own lenses, so we do not see this creativity going on all year round, all over the country, in many divergent forms, so the Carnival stage is a brief opportunity for a kind of maximum impact scenario, or “play”, and Minsh is one of the Masters. So, we expect him to come with something to stop you in your tracks, we expect, want, need, that difference .
Nicola Cross I’m smelling people’s choice.
James Christopher Aboud Minshall is an adapter, and the fact that the stilts fail to capture the graceful movement of Pavlova is not the point, although I noticed that at once. He made a connection with something other than ourselves, which is what the mas is supposed to do, and, by that adaptation, made it ours. Pavlova in drag is the original thought here, shocking the ballet purists and entering our transgender debate. I only wish that there was more movement. The length of the stilts make movement precarious. He went for impact more than movement it seems.
Annie Paul Should Caribbean societies only portray things that others deem ‘relevant’ to them? The very reaction this performance has received is a sign that its hit a chord with people? though clearly not with you Monique…
Gaiven Klavon Clairmont I agree with a few of the comments above, in that it was very refreshing to see the swan, and the beauty of art is that it doesn’t have to be limited to one’s own regional influences. We can interpret aspects from around the world and mould it into our own culture. So I absolutely loved this.
Judy Raymond Did you see the others? I haven’t yet this year, but they are almost always a variation on a fancy Indian or a giant clamshell-shaped thing on wheels that the masquerader drags along around/behind him- or herself. Occasionally there are special effects with lights/darkness/music.
Minsh draws on traditions from all over the world–because they’re all ours too–just as he drew on the work of Alexander Calder to produce his human mobiles–and especially stands on the shoulders of mas giants to produce something that is new–a moko jumbie combined with European ballet. And yes, as Eddie says it’s real theatre, and it included androgyny in a reference to one of the issues that this society is only now beginning to address. He doesn’t overestimate the value of originality but no one else understands how to combine the basic mechanical principles and characters of the mas into a new work of art that says something about the world and especially our corner of it now.
Abigail Hadeed I though this was the whole premise and history of our carnival appropriating / mimicing – The aristocrat / plantocract … Negue Jadin …. the free coloured / emancipated slaves mimicing the aristrocat – Dame Lorraine etc??? not a speller not an interlectual, but i recognise when something is soulful and appreciate it for what it is… the bonus is we get to enjoy and celebrate Minsh and he brings dialogue to a very mediocre dead boring beads and feathers mas
Edward Bowen de man wukin’!
Nicholas Laughlin Since Annie asks, here’s the relevant bit of a (long but hardly exhaustive) note I dashed off last night in response to a similar “why all the fuss” question. Also interesting to read your various notes above.
Having seen the components of the costume coming together backstage at the Savannah last night, having felt some doubts, then having seen the actual performance, I find it’s stuck in my head and I’ve been thinking about it all day. I can’t escape the sense that The Dying Swan is Minshall’s meditation on the place — aesthetic, intellectual, emotional — he finds himself in at nearly the end of his career as an artist.
The ballet that inspired the maswork is about the inevitability of death (the title gives that away, right?). It’s a classic Minshall move to have taken this exemplary work of European “high” culture and translated it via two traditional Carnival characters, the moko jumbie and the Dame Lorraine. And through a minimalist but rigorously considered form, a deceptively simple performance by the masquerader, a touch of self-awareness and self-parody (it’s a burly dude in drag, after all), to have made something that his audience can plainly delight in, while feeling the little emotional quiver of recognition that this is an artist’s elegy for his art.
As for brilliance on its own terms, though The Dying Swan isn’t technically innovative (Minshall did a moko jumbie king and queen as far back as 1988, and it’s now standard in the repertoire), and certainly not epoch-defining like Man Crab, I think it achieves the simple but not-so-simple thing that Minshall’s works have long argued is the meaning of mas: to give the performer the means to express an energy, an emotion, an idea beyond what the body alone can do.
In this case, I’d say, it starts in the gorgeous elongation of the masquerader’s limbs and thus the bird-like delicacy of his steps. It’s also remarkable to me how the generally male energy of the moko jumbie is subverted here without sacrificing presence or scale. And I am obviously no Carnival judge, but the scoring system ought to reward those kings and queens that can move entirely through the muscles and energy of their masqueraders, i.e. with NO WHEELS. There are so many massive kings and queens built like small houses — all the masqueraders can do is drag them into position before the judges and try to wiggle. The costumes that can actually pick up and move — and there were several last night, including the moko jumbie queen and king from Touch D’ Sky, and a couple of joyful fancy sailors — give the audience a really basic, straightforward pleasure by communicating the masqueraders’ energy.
For the record, I also really enjoyed the king who was a giant pot of callaloo topped by a magnificent blue crab, all made from papier-mâché. Even if it was on wheels.
Abigail Hadeed Nick, thank you for this…
Elspeth Duncan It’s the only thing i’ve seen of 2016 Carnival and I don’t need to see any more to know that none of the cliche beads, feathers and clam-shapes (as Judy called them) can come close to this.
Edward Bowen “clam shapes”, being dragged, bead and fedder and sekwin!
Monique Roffey Gosh, I left that question open and went to yoga to find this thread. Thanks Nicholas Laughlin for your thoughts, as yes there is something of a swan song that may be very personal to Minshall. Many of you have touched on my reactions to it. 1) drag is in no way new or original to the mas, 2) the stilts weren’t too graceful. 3) I liked the ‘burly dude’ drag element but he wasn’t too graceful up there, and, while I love that any designer can reach beyond our shores for inspiration, I did wonder what de ass, why this, why the dying swan? I agree Edward Bowen he’s a theatrical master/genius, but like Nicholas Laughlin, this swan ain’t epoch defining, like Man Crab. It felt odd to me to see this swan and then for all the fuss. I didn’t NOT like it Annie Paul, more like, hmmm, if Minshal were to put out a dying elf, Jedi knight, imp or one of Snow Whites dying dwarfs, would we all applaud and say what genius he is?
Edward Bowen this cultural “field” we have here is a mishmash of 500 years of continuous imports, it’s as if we apologize or attack this premise, which is still the case – it is about appropriation of whatever influence comes into that field of relavances, which is not fixed to any specific iconography or lines of thought – deal with it, deny it, it is a matter of artistic choice and thankfully that is being taken
Gin Awai The answer is yes. Minsh does ballet and the crowds ooooo and aaaaa. Next year it’ll be Minsh does Broadway on stilts. Traditional costumes aka costumes with wheels are built that way for stability to survive the roads of not only this Carnival but the other Carnivals around the world – Caribana, NY etc.
Can’t see our dying Swan lasting one concrete Ariapita Ave block.
Gin Awai Also, this is how Kings of Carnival make money to support future costumes and build the Carnival Industry through the denizens of hands that went into creating said traditional “forgettable” costume. Minsh clearly doesn’t need the prize winning money to continue producing his “art”.
Nicholas Laughlin I’m gonna disagree with you on the question of roadability, having scrutinised the costume components backstage with a very enquiring eye. Whatever seems delicate about the Swan is an optical illusion–it’s very solidly engineered. The legs are as sturdy as any moko jumbie’s, and everything is relatively lightweight and carefully balanced. In fact, it’s a king better suited to the vicissitudes of the road than the house-size behemoths designed to go the length of the Savannah stage and not much further–getting those on the road requires teams of handlers and traffic-directors. Scale is always impressive, but so is agility, and it’s interesting how the audience in the stands responds so enthusiastically to smaller costumes that can actually move without back-breaking effort.
Gin Awai Definitely looking forward to seeing Jha-Whan on the road. I hope he has insurance.
Audiences respond to drama which you described beautifully – the performance is breathtaking drama come to life. Still don’t think it’s a good Carnival King.
The theatrics don’t translate without the Minshall story. Seems more apt for Cirque du Soleil than first place. Interested to see what more drama would be created in the finals.
I predict more glitter and a blackened bird.
Nicholas Laughlin Interestingly, there was also a black swan queen from another band–I didn’t catch the title of the costume, and I can’t make out whether it got to the finals. She had a skirt of waterlilies and a kind of arbour of leafy branches.
Colin Robinson Carnival kings and queens have long portrayed mythical, “classical” themes and ones from foreign folklore. Apart from a heaping dose of Minshall nostalgia, the sheer imagination of the white costume compared to the yawning colourfulness and reductive representation of all the others is what the fuss is about. And at least half the fascination is about a king of carnival looking like a queen. Carnival costumes have lost imaginativeness in their mechanics as well, growing to the width of the stage and the weight a muscular man can drag. So Minshall pushing the one real area in which there has been mechanical imagination—the mokojumbie—even further with a simple shoe is what the fuss is about. These are a third of the costumes in the finals this year, and their Caribbean relevance: Artemisia, Medusa, Yacahuna, the Aztec Menace, Gloriana (Elizabeth I), Quecha, Demonato, Howakan, Elfurdrakos. But maybe we should be getting excitedabout bois in Moruga, wood instead of drag LOL
Jenifer Smith The plain was grassy, wild and bare,
Wide, wild, and open to the air,
Which had built up everywhere
An under-roof of doleful gray.
With an inner voice the river ran,
Adown it floated a dying swan,
And loudly did lament.
It was the middle of the day.
Ever the weary wind went on,
And took the reed-tops as it went.
Some blue peaks in the distance rose,
And white against the cold-white sky,
Shone out their crowning snows.
One willow over the water wept,
And shook the wave as the wind did sigh;
Above in the wind was the swallow,
Chasing itself at its own wild will,
And far thro’ the marish green and still
The tangled water-courses slept,
Shot over with purple, and green, and yellow.
The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear;
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold,
And the tumult of their acclaim is roll’d
Thro’ the open gates of the city afar,
To the shepherd who watcheth the evening star.
And the creeping mosses and clambering weeds,
And the willow-branches hoar and dank,
And the wavy swell of the soughing reeds,
And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,
And the silvery marish-flowers that throng
The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with eddying song.
Monique Roffey Colin Robinson thanks for this reply, but it has only backed up my querie, as you say, this isn’t too new. A long history of classical heroes in the mas, also a long history of dragging up. Aesthetically, it didn’t do it for me.
Colin Robinson Gotcha. But for all the limitations cited, it’s a huge breath of fresh air in the staleness of that competition.
Jenifer Smith I haven’t seen it for real yet but surely the dying swan could also be a metaphor for our failing society? city? innocence? ….and not just about Minshall’s reflection on his own mortality
Judy Raymond Yes, it’s about more than Minsh
Monique Roffey might be worth stating I’m a big fan of Minsh. Just not so crazy about this.
Colin Robinson Had a WTFyoumean response to Monique’s question and posted, and only now reading and enjoying the more grounded comments. I’m no ballet connaisseur but, contrary to others, I thought Jhawhan‘s mokojumbie movements did quite gracefully conjure the ballerina’s is it called bourrée?
Judy Raymond A kind of crude “drag”/androgyny as we’re calling it on this thread (not right word/s in this context) goes back centuries in the mas and is reflected in this mas: we’re not meant to be deceived into thinking the character is being played by a woman. Hence “Ras Nijinsky” and the less than perfectly graceful, “feminine” movement.
But has there ever been a cross-dressed king or queen before?
And it’s perhaps especially significant now in an age of hypersexualised pretty mas when women especially have to have perfect bodies: genitals barely covered, not an ounce of fat, exaggerated nails/hair/makeup/spray tan/glitter/lashes way out there/stiletto boots on the road etc etc (men can get away with ripped bodies & six-packs).
Nicholas Laughlin Only belatedly it occurred to me that there might be a sly reference here too to the pisse-en-lit, another traditional “drag” mas in which men portray women to deliberately evoke disgust and disdain–and which may have a fresh relevance at a moment when gender and sexual identity and expression are being vigorously debated and (re)contested.
Sharon Maas There was something eerie, haunting about it, but the arm movements didn’t synch at all — very ungraceful. but maybe that was deliberate?
Martina Laird Towering and proud, beautiful and grotesque, tragic and comic. Sexuality explicit and concealed. An amazing drag statement of ownership made on the very mainstream stage of the Savannah. Such challenge being very much the spirit of Carnival. Not to mention the parody of Eurocentric high culture in Trinidadian context
Jason Jones It is a genius piece of performance art and politics. A LIVE BANKSY! Utter BRILLIANCE. How it only got 4th place is disgraceful considering the masqueraders bravura performance!
Gab Souldeya Hosein Minsh says it best…this is not a costume, this is a mas. It’s not European copy, it’s something never tried with moko jumbies before…that uses the natural point of the stilts to masquerade ballet shoes…it says to every European ballet which has never done this…you ent really imagine a dancer on her toes until you see her cross a carnival stage in the body of an African moko jumbie 20 feet tall. It as African as it is European…in a way only Carnival brings together. I loving it.
Nicola Cross HAHAHA!
Nicola Cross “repurposing” i like that.
Gab Souldeya Hosein Not only that, usually with moko jumbies, the legs are hidden under pants or considered ‘wooden sticks’ underneath the costume, here they were deliberately shaped into legs! It’s the legs and ballet shoes of a dancing moko jumbie not the waving arms ‘like’ a dancer that are de heights of this mas….pun intended!!
Nicola Cross u good gurrl!
PS: And for dessert the Mas man himself, discussing The Dying Swan:
PPS: And how do you know when something has hit its mark? When it gets this kind of reaction from others in the game while the public delights. The following is from The Trinidad Guardian two days after Dying Swan placed third in the Carnival Kings category:
Acclaimed mas designer Peter Minshall’s return to Carnival after an over decade long hiatus has been marred in controversy after several veteran mas designers criticised his Carnival king costume — The Dying Swan, Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova — on Tuesday night.
The costume placed third in the King of Carnival Competition at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain, where it was a clear crowd favourite.
However, after the results were announced, several veteran mas designers criticised its minimalistic design, which was in clear contrast to the more grandiose portrayals which traditionally dominate the competition.
Marcus Eustace, the designer of the competition’s eventual winner Psychedelic Nightmares, worn by his brother Ted, described Minshall’s high placing as “ridiculous.”
“Put it this way, if you call that mas, how would it look if next year everybody play moko jumbie. That is not a mas. That is why the stands are empty.
“You have people building all kinds of expensive costumes and they coming tenth and 11th, and a moko jumbie come third,” Eustace said after the results were announced early Wednesday morning.
And carnival has barely started. Such fun!