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Dragons and clowns

By Terry Joseph
Feburary 10, 2006

Part 1

Amidst the baubles, boobs, bottoms and beads of contemporary Carnival, a well-costumed and properly presented dragon band still offers a compelling spectator option, although these rare moments are often squandered on arguments about "dying art", ill-timed debate that competes with visuals best appreciated in near silence.

Picture a Bookman, oversized feather pen and inkwell strapped on the leg, identifying a selected soul, his gargoyle grin an apothecary's mix of sinister and seductive, dipping the quill and with appropriate flourish, consigning a victim to hell, even as the Beast, imps taunting him with the tines of their tridents, spares no detail in performance of the water-crossing ritual; his subjects superbly playing supporting roles to complete the episode before the dragon band inches forward again with horns a-tooting.

There are those who feel convinced these elements of Carnival are lost forever and similarly lament the attrition of other portrayals, apparently oblivious to an insidious reprise and reassuringly, among young masqueraders. Kiddies Carnival, you may have noticed, overwhelmingly comprises traditional approaches to mas costuming.

And children are flocking to workshops mounted well outside the Carnival season by dedicated mas organisations and the more expansive Centre for Creative and Festival Arts, courses designed to transfer skills required for construction, oral tradition and choreography of such portrayals and apparently, those we least expected to be attracted by the genre are discovering great joy in these expressions.

But you have to study mas' - not just look at it - to properly appreciate subtle trends. Apart from kings and queens of the bands and individual presentations in the same context, there are distinct categories of masqueraders: party people happy to purchase imported costumes, consume hard-liquor and wine; traditionalists who stuck with a particular portrayal from first exposure and a slowly expanding constituency looking for art.

Among bandleaders, similar groupings exist. Some maintain allegiance to first principles even where incorporating today's fabrics into ancient traditions, then there are astute business-oriented suppliers of deliberately disposable mas and a third bloc that straddles both those concepts; all praying with equal zeal that their markets show annual growth.

Carnival forces these groupings into compatible pairs, each arguing its choice as the quintessential masquerade, meanwhile rendering them all mutually intolerant, the traditionalist anchored, proudly defending turf, while a Las Vegas showgirl jumps as if to touch the sky, suggesting anything else cannot really be mas; all clearly having as good a time as the King of Jouvert or drunken waif.

There are, of course, benchmark portrayals, like Wilfred Strasser's "One Penny", Peter Samuel Jnr as "The Midnight Robber" and Terry Evelyn's "Beauty in Perpetuity", a fancy clown of such elaborate costuming as to contrarily render it one of the most serious works of mas ever.

Unfortunately, contemporary mas clowns have not gone to such trouble with costuming or taken note of Evelyn's other examples, spending more time speechifying, like the Robber or Pierrot Grenade, often without the benefit of such depth, spewing hot air bereft of the Dragon's scale or tail, becoming mas "experts" purely on the basis of career spectatorship.

But many important things about mas' elude people who perceive Carnival as prime time for hopelessly irrational or purely emotive arguments, forever yearning for return to "the glory days", without so much as a hint of consideration for other aspects of evolution or social developments, as if mas remains immune while every other aspect of life is frequently subjected to modification.

Carnival brings revenue to every other entertainer but the masquerader who, obstinately, prefers spending what is fast becoming a fortune to delight others. Any attempt to impose regulations that seek to contain this special freedom is sure to end in conflict of an intensity never before experienced in the festival's history; which already boasts some rather fierce battles.

Those who frown on bikinis and beads have the option of investing in costumes featuring good ol' fashioned bustles and breastplates, if only they preferred to put their money where their mouths are, instead of taking pot shots at the people who demonstratively stand by their however unconventional beliefs about what mas should be.

To simply say the women are portraying Las Vegas showgirls is to imply a leaning toward imposition of the old European or tribal touchstone on masqueraders bombarded by American aesthetics, a proposition destined for failure.

Interestingly, much of the mas critique comes from men, who once comprised 95 per cent of the costumed revelry but withdrew voluntarily, opting instead for the superior comfort of critique, which certainly doesn't cost anywhere near the price of much-maligned bikinis and beads.

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