Members of the arts and letters community reflect on the Minshall-designed 2016 Carnival king The Dying Swan: Ras Nijinsky in drag as Pavlova.
"T&T mas has played The Glory that was Greece, Imperial Rome, Africa, New Guinea, China: the Forbidden City and gone into realms of fantasy. There are no boundaries to the realms of the imagination."
Veteran mas designer Peter Minshall had those words for those who questioned the relevance of his 2016 Carnival king, The Dying Swan: Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova. The piece, performed by veteran moko jumbie stilt-walker Jha-Whan Thomas and accompanied by pan player Fayola Granderson, placed third in the King of Carnival finals on Tuesday.
Minshall said, "In my little inventive Trini mind years ago I thought, 'Well, classical Africa could mix and marry with classical Europe, so you could put ballet shoes on a moko jumbie and he'd literally be dancing on his toes."
He said there's a special creativity and magic in T&T that "gives us the incredible ability to blend aspects of different cultures into a tapestry of extraordinary originality and beauty and make it ours."
The Dying Swan is the name of a short work originally choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1905 to Camille Saint-Sa�ns's 1886 composition Le Cygne (The Swan), as a special piece for legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Vaslav Nijinsky was one of the world's greatest male ballet dancers and they both danced for the Ballets Russes, the most influential ballet company of the 20th century.
Austin Fido, who was a producer of the costume, said the choice of the piece was appropriate for Minshall because "it was made for a ballerina critics said couldn't dance en pointe properly and produced by a choreographer critics said didn't favour that style of dancing, and it proved their critics wrong.
"The (Dying Swan mas) is very specifically designed to showcase that aspect of a ballerina's skill, and the tiny steps further challenge the expectations of what moko jumbies can do."
Minshall said people would see different things in the masquerade. "I have produced a mas, a work of art that combines dance, movement and human apparel. What you wear is the work of art, the verb is 'to play the mas.' When the mas is played, it subtly communicates all sorts of things and brings to people a light that illuminates their own experiences of life."
The main audience response to the performance was one of wonder. Writer and editor Judy Raymond, who has interviewed and written about Minshall many times, said, "No one else understands now how to combine the characters and basic mechanical principles of the mas into a new work of art that says something about the world, especially our corner of it. Standing on the shoulders of mas giants, he draws on traditions from all over the world and uses old elements to create a new combination which seems familiar and yet fresh at the same time."
Writer and editor Nicholas Laughlin said 30 years from now people will still be talking about the piece. "No other mas on the Kings and Queens stage got such a prolonged response from the stands. I think people reacted to the elegant but deceptive simplicity of the performance and the costume, the minimalist silhouette, the eye-refreshing white palette, the gorgeous elongation of the masquerader's legs and the delicacy of his steps."
While lauding Minshall's creation, cultural studies researcher Rhoda Bharath said the reaction to it was troubling.
"In 2016, that a moko jumbie dressed as a ballerina still shocks the sensibilities of the masquerade viewing public shows how far we have drifted away from the centre. The masquerade shook people up because of how much Minshall adhered to the basics of mas and masquerade."
She said Minshall understands mas is a performance and a ritual tied to the culturally resonant space of T&T, not just "running across the stage in a costume being dragged on three wheels. He shows why we reverence him and consider him a bit of a genius, because he pulled things that were obviously in front of us together in a way that took many people's breath away."
Minshall commended pan player Fayola Granderson, saying her live performance helped to cement the mas. "Just the sound of our steel; it really is a marriage, that's who we are. We can take India, sew it into the seams of Africa, embroider it with Europe and come up with something nobody else could do, a moko jumbie dancing en pointe on stage!"
Minshall said Thomas' performance was brilliant and waved aside any controversy about a male performer portraying a female ballerina. "Men have been playing the parts of women for centuries in all cultures. When you look at Jha-whan's performance, you don't think male, female, you think the Dying Swan."
Others had a different take on the issue.
Thomas said he thought people "would have been more taken aback by a king in female garments, but the moko jumbie doing ballet, a classical ballet piece being done in the height of Carnival, that's the mind-blowing factor that took them away from the question of whether it's androgynous or not." He said he had no problem with placing third, as he thought the judges didn't really know how to deal with the presentation.
Raymond said, "A man in a dress, dancing a traditional woman's part, it overtly raises the issue of gender, in terms of more than only male or female, in a way this society is only now beginning to deal with. While 'drag'/ cross-dressing in Carnival goes back centuries, we're not meant to be deceived into thinking the character is being danced by a woman. Hence 'Ras Nijinsky', the choice of a muscular, stocky masquerader and the less than perfectly graceful 'feminine' movement.
"Those choices are perhaps especially significant now in an age of hypersexualised pretty mas, when women especially, and men, have to have perfect bodies. This is a parody of a ballerina, just as the 'feminine' mas women are expected to play parodies real women. But this is not just parody either. It moves us. It's not 'jokey'; it's art."
Laughlin had similar thoughts. "There's a touch of self-parody in a burly fella in drag portraying this meditation on mortality. But a drag king, as a capital-K King, hasn't been done before and this mas has a stark relevance at a moment when gender, sexual identity and expression are being vigorously debated and contested in our public sphere."
Commenting on the competition, Bharath asked, "Why is our mas still so static and formulaic, so unrelentingly mundane and repetitious? I think it's because people are putting out a costume solely to win a prize and not because they've been inspired or because they're honing their craft or technique and it's unfortunate." She said the model of State funding for creative events needs to be audited and revamped, before things grind to a halt.
Laughlin said those who are so supportive of Minshall's mas should go out and support others that are doing similar work, including younger mas people.He said those who think the Dying Swan represents something lost from contemporary mas should realise we chose to lose it.
"My challenge to everyone who feels elated or relieved by Minshall's return to the stage is to seek out, talk about, tangibly support the kinds of mas you want to see more of, maybe even make or play it yourself. What's stopping you?"
As many have pointed out, this is not the first big mas on stilts; only last year the band of moko jumbies Touch D Sky won the Queen of Carnival title with Stephanie Kanhai portraying Sweet Waters of Africa. Jha-Whan Thomas has played king on stilts before, too: in 2006 he was Fancy Sailor King in Brian Mac Farlane's 2006 band Threads of Joy, and won King of Carnival as Pandemic Rage in Mac Farlane's 2008 band Earth: Cries of Despair, Wings of Hope.
Nor is it Minshall's first foray into interfering with the boundaries between male and female in mas. Pat Ganese wrote in Caribbean Beat in 1992 about Minshall's individual Madame Hiroshima from the 1985 band The Golden Calabash, describing the mas as "a voluptuous, demonic, male-as-female creature with a mushroom cloud over her skull/head."
In the traditional Trinidad Carnival, several characters cross the same boundary, including the male pis-en-lit, a man in a bloodstained nightgown with a chamber pot in his hand; and the dame Lorraine, a male masquerader in a dress with heavy padding made to represent a coquette with grossly exaggerated bust and bottom.
Nicholas Laughlin said, on this year's Minshall mas, "Someone asked me whether all the fuss is just because 'it's Minshall.' And of course the answer is partly and not surprisingly yes: he's a major artist, has acquired an engaged audience over the course of his career, and even a minor work by Minshall is going to command–the aptest word–our attention." (LAA)