Rights Of Passage: A Contemporary Dragon Mas
CARNIVAL MONDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2006
PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD
Design by ALEX KAHN and SOPHIA MICHAHELLES
– Calypso by Valentino
In December 2005, we traveled to Trinidad on a Fulbright Fellowship to take part in a six-month artist residency at Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA). Having spent the past decade working with processional artforms in the Village Halloween Parade and other events, we were eager to explore Trinidad’s Carnival and interact with artists and performers whose culture of procession has endured for 200 years. Heeding the Carnival maxim "Play yuhself!" we sought to integrate our research in Carnival traditions with our own vision as contemporary artists. The result, built and performed in collaboration with CCA artists and local Trinidadian participants, was a band of ten masqueraders that "played Mas" on Carnival Monday.
Rights of Passage was our contemporary adaptation of the traditional Dragon Band. Constructing puppets, masks, and other elements from street materials and found objects, we portrayed the dragon’s frenetic, inhibited dance as a commentary on current constrictions of class, space, and mobility within the modern-day Carnival, and in Trinidad in general.
First designed and performed in 1906 by Calypsonian “Chinee” Patrick, to introduce Chinese iconography into the Mas, the Dragon Band has evolved to include four basic characters: Bookman, Dragon, and Imps, and Queen Devils (Diablesses). The Bookman leads the troupe, taking note of the misdeeds of mankind, followed by the Dragon, who struggles against the chains of torments of his keepers, the Imps. The Dragon Dance is triggered at the band approaches a body of water – any gutter, puddle, or river-crossing will do. The Dragon is associated with the Devil and with fire, while water symbolizes the Holy Water of the Church, and by association all the prohibitions and hierarchies implied by any authority structure. The suddenly fearful Dragon writhes, shrinks, recoils, lashes out, and does anything in its power the avoid crossing the water, but eventually, dragged by the Imps, he leaps across, and continues down the road. Whether this crossing implies a supplication or a transgression, or both, is deliberately ambiguous. In either case, the Dragon Dance plays out a cyclic drama of constraint, rebellion, and release – a microcosm of Carnival itself.
As newcomers to both Trinidad and Carnival, we chose the structure of the Dragon Band to respond to our personal observations of the class divisions and conflicts that currently afflict Trinidad. Killings, kidnappings, and assaults have spawned a pervasive aura of apprehension in Port-of-Spain, fueled by daily newspapers’ sensationalist tallies of the victims for the year. We felt our movements through the city increasingly precarious, as locals admonished us to avoid one neighborhood after another. Crime (and fear of crime) arises from economic disparity, and our daily commute confirmed the vast gulf that divides the abject poverty of Beetham Estates from gated communities of Maraval. As barriers, both psychological and physical, are erected between communities, a siege mentality prevails. Neighborhoods avoided become neighborhoods neglected and, ultimately, disenfranchised.
Carnival has historically been seen as a “time out of time” when such divisions crumble, and social dissent finds its voice – whether in the tribal cohesion of Steelpan Bands, the biting satire of Calypso, or the transformative power of the Mas. Yet, today many Trinidadians we met feel disaffected with the increasing commercialization of Carnival. As large and profitable "bikini-and-beads" Mas Bands become the dominant visual expression Carnival, costumes have increasingly become more mass-produced and generic. Meanwhile, the cost to play in Band (as much as $500.00 US) has effectively excluded working-class Trinidadians, from their own tradition of empowerment. The growing number of “All-inclusive” bands – self-contained luxury caravans of drinks, food, and security guards – have become the very definition of exclusivity. Thus Carnival, which once served to usurp class hierarchies, now reinforces them, as paying the fee for a premium band becomes a publicly affirmation of one's income and social status.
Drawing inspiration from Earl Lovelace’s Dragon Can’t Dance and Hollis "Chalkdust" Liverpool’s Rituals of Power and Rebellion, we presented the Dragon Band as an alternative to the ethos of the modern Mas. The Dragon's Dance is, above all, about crossing established boundaries and confronting the fear that enforces them. Rejecting the prevailing Las Vegas Carnival aesthetic, we culled our materials instead from the vernacular materials of urban Trinidad: cardboard, plastic bags, newspaper, crocus cloth, and, in particular, razor-wire (safely replicated in Mylar). Unlike the typical Mas bands, we charged no fee to join the band and attracted several young Trinidadians who, disenchanted by the modern Carnival, had never before played Mas. Trinidadians speak with reverence about the moment one "passes the stage" (the main judging stage on the Queen's Park Savannah). At their urging, we stormed onstage without the official government permits required for all Carnival performers, leaving judges and audiences alike confounded by the ragged, anonymous Dragon Band that had at last claimed its right of passage.
Click on any character to "play our Mas"
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