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Dancing in the J'Ouvert space
“Every year I play a ballerina at J’Ouvert,” says Makeda Thomas, a 36-year-old internationally honoured dancer and choreographer, and director and curator of the Dance and Performance Institute that bears her name. “It’s about form and a particular history—it seems a good place to start. With the messiness, messing up my tutu; the fact there’s not a pointed foot, I’m in sneakers, my ras is all over the place,” she says. “It’s literally the place you can be made and undone in the same instance.” For Thomas, there is more to it than jumping up in the dark: “J’Ouvert is life. J’Ouvert is freedom. J’Ouvert is holy. It really is; it’s like baptism. It is where all of the masks that you wear for the entire year can be worn simultaneously. And the mess and ugliness of all of that makes sense in the J’Ouvert.” The inspiration for these comments is writer and activist Attillah Springer, more specifically, her talk Jouvayism, presented at TEDx Port-of-Spain last September and revisited on a late-January evening at the Propaganda Space in Belmont, for the benefit of the Carnival Performance Institute (CPI).
The CPI is a biannual programme in the Makeda Thomas Dance and Performance Institute’s repertoire of projects. Founded in 2010, the institute has received government support for specific projects but is not government-funded. In addition to the CPI, the institute runs a year-long artist-in-residency programme and an annual two-week summer intensive course. Sustaining these endeavours is a network of partners, collaborators, former and current faculty and students, and institute co-ordinator, Candace Thompson. “I cannot do it without Candace,” Thomas says.
In this instance, “it” is an eight-day immersion in Trinidad Carnival and dance culture for ten students from Middlebury College in Vermont. By the end of the course, the CPI has introduced them to kalinda, moko jumbies, the blue devils of Paramin, and the panyards of Port-of-Spain. The art, rhythms and culture of Carnival have been explored through workshops, community service, film viewings and lectures—and J’Ouvert.
The purpose of the CPI is to “centre Carnival in performance studies,” Thomas explains. “As we talk about site-specific work, or the creation of work for stage, we want Carnival at the centre of those conversations: what it means to make work, to create, to be a community of artists and to create meaning from that work.” The schedule is busy. Each day is filled with a series of engagements that lead the students on a crisscrossing tour of Port-of-Spain and beyond: Belmont, Diego Martin, Woodbrook—even as far as Caura. They appear to be just a truck and some costumes short of being a mas band. The frenetic agenda is deliberate. “Part of me wants to allow them to have as much time as possible to absorb it,” Thomas says, “but there’s part of me that wants them to have that Carnival pace, where you get so tired that you can’t get so up in your head. It just has to kind of peel away and it gets really raw. That’s super important.”
Christal Brown, dance programme chair at Middlebury College, describes this kinetic, participatory approach to study as “embodied scholarship.”
“We’re not just listening and not just regurgitating information or proving ourselves proficient in our understanding, but really digesting and giving back a perspective that may be different, may be new, but really pushes the research forward. At the same time, it pushes us forward as artists, as educators, and as beings.” US News and World Report ranks Middlebury as the fourth-best liberal arts school in the United States. “We are a burgeoning leader in defining the curriculum of the future,” says Brown, “I solicit funding for any opportunity to participate in that education of the future.” Many of the students on the trip are double-majors, and one is not a dancer at all. They will showcase their learning, from Trinidad and a six-month inquiry into the art and culture of the Caribbean Diaspora, in a professional-grade performance back in Vermont. Despite its broad curriculum, the CPI does repeatedly lead its students back to J’Ouvert. Attillah Springer’s talk is the programme’s third discussion of Carnival’s gritty, paint-smeared vanguard. The Middlebury contingent has examined the Jouvay theatre process with Tony Hall, and engaged with UWI’s Jouvay Ayiti project. Hall uses Carnival characters as avatars for performers; Jouvay Ayiti uses mas and masmaking as, among other things, a form of protest.
During her lecture, Springer notes that Carnival encompasses a spectrum of attitudes. “My truth is in J’Ouvert; for others, it is pretty mas.” Given the CPI’s recurring interest in J’Ouvert, does Makeda Thomas share this preference? “Good guess!” Thomas laughs in agreement. “I didn’t even consciously think about that.” Admitting, after further contemplation, “If you’re not interested in pretty mas, and Peter Minshall is not coming out with a band for yet another year, what do you do? Since my last full band—in 2006, Minshall’s Sacred Heart—I’ve only played J’Ouvert. I’m done after J’Ouvert. I’ve come out a couple of times with Robert Young, in his independent band, but as far as big bands…J’Ouvert has completely become my time. I’m done, 12 o’clock on Monday.” An evolving connection to the dance toward dawn was a central theme of Springer’s talk. She recalled herself as a girl, anxiously watching from behind her mother’s legs, fearful of attracting the grimy attention of the passing bands.
The fastidious child is now a self-described “Jouvayist,” recognising the anxiety she once felt on the faces of spectators: “If I’m walking down the street and I’m covered in paint, and I see someone who is not covered in paint, and they have a particular look in their eye—I want to recreate that moment of when I was small and terrified, by being the terrifier.” Springer describes Carnival as a “space of contestation” and J’Ouvert as “that point when I see myself testing everything of my space and my society.” She presents her own experiences using elements of the masquerade to drive activism. Making reference to her participation in protesting plans to put a smelting plant in Cap-de-Ville, she recalls, “We wrapped a woman in aluminium foil.”
Springer’s account of “Jouvayism” is one of love for J’Ouvert’s many paradoxes: a ritual of insubordination; a challenge to authority confined to the dark; a mas tradition at once individual and archetypal; “the divine order that chaos represents,” as she puts it. And it is personal. The talk concludes with Springer’s description of her own feelings when crossing the stage at the Savannah as dawn breaks on Carnival Monday and J’Ouvert winds down. She likens it to rebirth, a transitional experience. The memory is emotional. The confident demeanour of the professional communicator is fractured. Attillah Springer is lost for words. She breathes deeply, thinks. “It’s a liminal thing.”