The siloed Mas agenda

BitDepth#984 for April 14, 2015

King Sailor Ralph Dyette explains the genesis of the masquerade’s choreography at the 2015 Mas Colloquium. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
King Sailor Ralph Dyette explains the genesis of the masquerade’s choreography at the 2015 Mas Colloquium. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

I’d already committed to attending the Carnival Studies annual Mas Colloquium, signing up for my Eventbrite ticket online, when convener Kenwyn Murray asked me to substitute as a moderator for one of the panels.

My perspective on the event, held under the rubric Mas Aesthetics: Exploring the Art of Mas, was one that reflected both sides of the folding table that demarcated presenters from audience.

Unfortunately, it was an event that was sparsely attended, likely the result of oddly low-key promotion, though there is also the general exhaustion with Carnival talk shops that seem to effect no discernible change or drive any meaningful long-term contemplation.

Murray is a keen advocate of exploring the deeper meaning of mas and researching all the avenues of history that have led to its creation, but the Colloquium, like far too many of its brethren in the local seminar landscape, tends to the type of siloed thinking that’s proving lethal to both the art and the business of Carnival.

The NCC led discussions I’ve attended have stressed the business aspects of the festival, appropriate to the agenda of that organisation, while conversations like the Colloquium tend to obsess with its creative elements.

This year’s event covered four aspects of Carnival creation.

Dance as Mas, featured choreographers Candace Thompson and Sonja Dumas and veteran King Sailor dancer Ralph Dyette.

Media as Mas featured photographers Warren Le Platte, Maria Nunes and Kerron Riley, while Making as Mas shrunk from a three member panel to shorter conversation with Martin Soverall, described as a cardboard sculptor.

Theatre as Mas was part discussion of the work of Rawle Gibbons, but mostly a huge love fest for the retiring theatre lecturer.

Each offered valuable contributions, but some comments stood out during the day’s discussions.

Dumas emphasised the relationship between interior intent and external expression in Carnival dance, “you know the rules of the movement, but you interpret it in your own way.”

“There is an essence there that has not been lost,” the choreographer noted, “the notion of self-empowerment on those days.”

Fashion photographer Kerron Riley noted that there’s very little coverage of Carnival abroad, a shortfall he addresses by offering his perspective of the event in exhibitions in Europe.

“We think it’s being shared around the world,” he explained, “but it isn’t.”

Martin Soverall, still in a five-year sabbatical from creating mas, explained his process for approaching the difficult medium of cardboard to create a unique perspective on mas design.

“I had to forget everything about how mas was done.”

“I had to ask myself, what is this thing called Mas that we do every year over and over.”

In doing so, he was mindful of what he described as one of the unwritten rules of mas.

“You don’t damblay, you don’t do the same thing over and over again, you find something new, a new way.”

And yet, that’s pretty much what the Carnival communities seem committed to doing.

Every year, the divide between traditional masquerade traditions and the popular street party bands grows deeper, the emotional chasms starker, the resentments and dismissals more ingrained.

It’s a situation that benefits no-one and threatens to break a Carnival already unmoored and free-floating on tides of whimsy and deadly currents of mismanagement and political interference.

Big party bands, who occasionally flirt with the design capacity of traditionalists, should move to create formal experiments in expanding the boundaries of design within their camps.

Even creating a single section that expands the mechanics and aesthetics of what has become derisively described as “bikini, beads and feathers” mas would be a huge step forward in encouraging new design and aesthetic initiatives.

Traditionalists, for their part, cannot continue to create for a Carnival that no longer exists. The systems, organisation and expectations created by street party bands cannot be ignored in the hope that they will go away.

Inventiveness cannot only be invested in design.

It must expand to marketing, masquerader satisfaction and the creation of compelling narratives that engage and entice a new, young audience if such traditions are to evolve and grow.

We are not in a good place, but we can get there if we acknowledge these bitter truths.