The mas, with the subtitle ‘Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova’, crossed the Savannah stage on Thursday night. Even if a few people had an initially derisive reaction to seeing a man in a dress, their laughter soon transformed to rousing applause.
The ugly duckling becomes a swan.
The swan is also ubiquitous in art. It has been written about by poets Alfred Lord Tennyson (whose ‘The Dying Swan’ inspired the dance which Anna Pavlova made famous and which gives Minshall’s piece its title); William Butler Yeats; Rainer Maria Rilke; Charles Baudelaire; and Shakespeare (“I will make thee think thy swan a crow”). Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake from 1875 towers over the centuries like a wave, its currents absorbing something from each generation (its interpretations have been heavily influenced by Pavlova’s dance).
But Minshall and masquerader, Jha-whan Thomas, give us a swan like no other. This mas fuses two seemingly disparate things: European art and Diaspora art, showing how they are one.Minshall has taken the Moko Jumbie (which leaped across the Atlantic from the West coast of Africa to the Caribbean) and turned it into a ballet dancer.
The Jumbie’s long stilt has been transformed. Instead of leaving it bare (like a pirate’s wooden leg) or trying to hide it in profuse fabric, white stockings are painted onto it. Add a toe, a heel and the suggestion of a calf. The overall result is a ballet dancer en pointe. With one fell swoop, mas is brought to new heights.
On Thursday, Thomas floated from the dark areas of the stage as though emerging from water.
And then, under the spotlight, he staggered, taking his tiny, tiptoe ballerina steps. It is not that the swan will die or has died.
It is the present participle. The swan is dying yes, as opposed to dead. Baudelaire’s line, describing an animal “gnawed by one craving”, comes alive.
Like the finest art, there is absolutely nothing ornamental.
Each piece of this simple production performs a function.
On its own, the long gown, with flowing white plumes, as beautiful as it is, is unostentatious.
The real star is the dance. The movement of one body, through space and time, to pan music and Camille Saint-Saens’s ‘The Swan’.
Thomas has fallen on the Queen’s Park Savannah stage several times over the years while wearing stilts. That inherent possibility, and the risk he takes, charges this mas and makes it fly to terrain no other person could achieve. Each part of his quivering body, his spell-binding face, is a part of this.
Beyond Tuesday night’s finals, ‘The Dying Swan’ may make no further appearance at Carnival as there are no plans for it to be on the road on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. If this mas is a brief aberration, then so be it. With its spectacular genius, it transcends the theme of resurrection and leaves us with a message once sent by the poet WH Auden: “We must love one another or die”.